Guest Opinion: FEMA Trailer Problems Continue


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Manufacturers of FEMA travel trailers appeared before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in Washington earlier this month to answer questions about formaldehyde in units they provided for emergency housing after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Representatives from Gulfstream, Keystone, Forest River and Pilgrim, which built trailers for FEMA, were called before the same committee that last summer uncovered FEMA's efforts to distance itself from the formaldehyde issue when it first came to light ("FEMA's Formaldehyde Foibles," News & Views, Jan. 8).

A week before the congressional hearing, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released its final report on testing it conducted last winter to determine the extent of the formaldehyde problem. The report shows there were elevated levels of the harmful chemical in the majority of units tested. Four makers — Gulfstream, Forest River, Pilgrim and Keystone, the same companies called to testify before Congress — had particularly worrisome levels, some as high as 590 parts per billion, almost six times the level associated with negative health effects on sensitive persons.

Formaldehyde exposure has affected a large number of hurricane evacuees, and longitudinal studies to examine the health impacts of exposure reportedly are in the works. But the CDC's findings validate the perceptions of trailer occupants who have endured an array of health problems since moving into the units.

As trailer manufacturers face congressional scrutiny over the hazards of formaldehyde, the CDC report raises larger questions about the safety of the temporary housing units that are still in use. As a part of the study, occupants of the 519 trailers tested were asked to fill out a questionnaire. In addition to speaking with the trailer residents, investigators conducted walk-throughs of the units and assessed external conditions of the trailers. In the course of the study, investigators learned that 29 percent of the trailers they examined had no functioning smoke detectors. No reasons were recorded to account for this high percentage, but the ultimate responsibility for the proper functioning of trailer alarms rests with the handful of contractors that provide maintenance and deactivation of the units still in use.

The danger of fires in FEMA trailers is well known ("Up in Flames," News & Views, Dec. 11, 2007). As many as two dozen people have lost their lives in such blazes, and in at least two of the incidents, occupants died of smoke inhalation, not flames. Asleep when fires broke out, they were not awakened by detectors, and when they did wake up, they were overcome by toxic smoke.

Ellen Schools, a 51-year-old Cameron Parish evacuee living in a FEMA trailer after Hurricane Rita, was found dead inside her trailer, 3 feet from the door, in August 2006. Would-be rescuers heard her beating on the wall to draw their attention, but they could not enter the tailer because the fire was too intense.

A month earlier, St. Bernard resident Michael Tufaro died in his trailer when his bed caught fire. No alarm had sounded to warn him of the danger, either. The deaths of Schools and Tufaro might have been prevented had smoke detectors been properly functioning. The failure of CO2 alarms to sound also is suspected in several propane-related explosions and deaths ("Alarming Failures," News & Views, April 29).

The CDC questionnaire also revealed that 21 percent of the FEMA trailer occupants surveyed had reported problems with mold in their trailers in the prior three months. CDC surveyors reported they saw mold patches of up to 4 square feet in size in the interior of roughly one out of 10 units.

Mold grows best in moist conditions, and 15 percent of the occupants surveyed reported leaky pipes in their trailers, and 17 percent said they had roof leaks. The health consequences of prolonged exposure to mycotoxins, or toxic mold, are well-documented, and the prevalence of mold in FEMA trailers led one researcher to refer to them as "beautiful growth media on wheels."

It also is possible that leaks in trailers might exacerbate formaldehyde problems. Cured and dry formaldehyde glues and resins emit less formaldehyde than when they are wet, but formaldehyde is a water-soluble chemical. Should a pipe or roof leak dampen particle board or plywood paneling, these materials could emit formaldehyde fumes all over again, especially in the heat and humidity of a Gulf Coast summer. Such a scenario might explain why, after more than two years of use, the travel trailers still measure high levels of the fumes, while most structures with formaldehyde emit smaller and smaller amounts over time.

The congressional hearings are not the end of the issue for trailer manufacturers. They have been named in a class-action lawsuit, filed in Eastern Louisiana Federal District Court last year, which seeks damages on behalf of trailer occupants exposed to the chemical.

In the meantime, FEMA is relocating trailer occupants to avoid formaldehyde risks in the heat and humidity of summer. But as the CDC's report indicates, the shortcomings of FEMA's emergency housing program are many, varied and don't stop at formaldehyde.


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