Arkansas will accept Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile homes for tornado victims but has put a limit on their formaldehyde levels, Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday.
Beebe said the state will not take mobile homes with formaldehyde levels higher than 40 parts per billion. Anything below that level is typical for most housing, he said.
FEMA has been criticized for its response to concerns about much higher levels of formaldehyde in mobile homes used by victims of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes. About 34,000 remain occupied but FEMA has stepped up efforts to move residents.
Thousands of unused FEMA mobile homes remain in storage. Tests on 32 of them set aside for Arkansas victims of Feb. 5 tornadoes showed that three of them had levels above 77 parts per billion. That is considered high enough to raise residents' risk of cancer and respiratory illness.
Three of the other homes tested had levels above the state's 40 ppb standard, but that leaves enough homes for the 25 Arkansas families who have expressed an interest. State officials said FEMA would receive the governor's decision within 24 hours.
"We've looked at all the scientific evidence that we could find and we're making commonsense decisions based upon that scientific evidence," Beebe told reporters at a news conference. "But in the final analysis, this is about helping people who don't have a lot of other options."
Beebe said storm victims will have final say on whether they would accept the housing.
Hundreds lost homes to tornadoes
Hundreds of people in Arkansas and Tennessee lost their homes to tornadoes in early February. Tennessee has accepted some FEMA mobile homes, with the same 40 ppb limit Arkansas is using.
Federal regulations do not set limits on formaldehyde levels in homes. The compound is a preservative commonly used in construction materials; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the indoor air of an average modern home has a formaldehyde level of 10 to 20 parts per billion.
Victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita complained of headaches and nosebleeds after living inside FEMA mobile homes, and lawsuits claim the mobile homes and travel trailers contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde.
When complaints of possible formaldehyde poisoning surfaced, FEMA officials insisted in early 2006 that the trailers were safe. But after coming under increasing pressure, FEMA enlisted the CDC's help to test them.
The CDC initially said in February 2007 that, with proper ventilation, formaldehyde levels were safe in the short term. A year later, however, the CDC released preliminary results from additional testing showing that FEMA trailers and mobile homes had formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than in most modern homes.