Toxic Trailers

by Mary Tutwiler

Formaldehyde fears are forcing a second evacuation of hurricane victims. After a year and a half of dismissing, ignoring and denying claims from hurricane Katrina and Rita victims that formaldehyde fumes building up in the travel trailers were making them sick, FEMA officials announced last week that they are moving trailer residents into hotels and apartments as fast as possible. At the New Orleans press conference, FEMA administrator David Paulison said, “The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out.” He was accompanied by Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, who addressed the agency’s findings in a formaldehyde study the CDC conducted for FEMA.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas. It is widely used to manufacture building materials and numerous household products, and its most significant use in homes is as an adhesive resin in pressed wood products. The CDC found that the formaldehyde levels inside the trailers ranged from five times the level found in typical homes to up to nearly 40 times customary exposure levels. Its report says that residents need to place a high priority on lowering exposure to formaldehyde. “This is especially important if residents of your trailer are elderly, young children, or have health conditions such as asthma.”

The report recommended that FEMA move quickly to relocate trailer residents, and to follow-up in offering assistance to Louisiana and Mississippi health departments to address medical needs. “FEMA should consider establishing a registry and long-term heath monitoring of children who resided in FEMA-supplied travel trailers and mobile homes.” FEMA is currently contacting every trailer resident with information about formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde exposure can cause headaches, nosebleeds, burning and watering eyes, sore throats, nausea, skin rashes and may set off asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. It is a known cancer-causing agent. According to New Iberia chemist and environmental consultant Wilma Subra, the need to monitor anyone who lived in a trailer is paramount. “When you leave the environment of the trailer, the symptoms should subside,” she says. “But if someone is re-exposed — and it’s the glue in things like particle board that contains formaldehyde, that could be in kitchen cabinets or bathrooms in any house they move into — they may have elevated symptoms again.”

Subra is concerned that people will move away, find new doctors, and fail to make the connection. It may be years before the ill effects of exposure to a carcinogen like formaldehyde are known. “It’s not just the people living in the trailers now who need long-term monitoring,” she says. “It’s people who moved out a year ago. They were exposed as well.”

The immediate relocation of families living in the trailers is FEMA’s first priority. “We’re not booting people out,” Paulison says. “What we’re doing is putting them into hotels and motels until we can find an apartment for them. It’s just transition, to get them out of the travel trailer and into someplace where it’s safer.” Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes — 137 in Lafayette Parish, 100 in Iberia and 66 in Vermilion.

Vicki Boudreaux, chief operations officer for Acadiana Outreach, who has been working with FEMA to help hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees since they lost their homes in the 2005 storms, says finding places for 137 families in Lafayette is going to be an insurmountable task. “Nothing in FEMA’s history leads me to believe they can pull off [a relocation] of all these people in two weeks. I’ve heard talk of hotels. That’s a nightmare. And no hotel is actually going to buy it. They remember all too well what they went through the first time. So I don’t think it’s going to be a hotel route. I’m not sure what their end result can be or should be or will be.”

Boudreaux says there is simply no affordable housing available. “When I say no houses, I don’t mean there’s maybe 20 houses and people don’t like where they’re located. You can’t find affordable places. We struggle with our clients, evacuee and non-evacuee all the time. If you want to stay in Lafayette and you want housing, I don’t know what the option is going to be.”

Boudreaux says emptying the trailers is going to create another evacuation, albeit smaller, than the one following the storms. “Short of re-creating another Cajundome emergency shelter, I don’t know where they’re going to go.”

FEMA’s formaldehyde hotline is (866) 562-2381 or TTY 1 (800) 462-7585. FEMA employees are available to discuss housing concerns at 1-866-562-2381, or TTY 1-800-462-7585. CDC specialists will respond to health-related concerns at 1-800-CDC-INFO. To register rental properties with FEMA, contact the agency at (888) 294-2822.