Home Sick

FEMA and the CDC tell Katrina evacuees living in FEMA trailers that they need to move because their homes could be toxic.


Heather and Matthew Durand have lived in the travel trailer at the Pine Crest Mobile Home Park in Slidell since March 2006. They are among the 519 Louisiana and Mississippi Katrina evacuees whose trailers and mobile homes were tested last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for formaldehyde, an irritating, toxic chemical used in the particle board and other materials inside the trailers. Since moving into their FEMA trailer almost two years ago, the Durands have suffered symptoms common to trailer residents. "My husband's asthma went from manageable to severe," says Heather Durand, 29. "He's had nosebleeds and chronic sinus infections. I wake up with a splitting headache every day, hacking and coughing. My eyes are swollen. We both have rashes. I'm always tired."

Because of their health problems, the Durands were anxious to learn the results of the testing, which they expected to receive by mail at the end of the month. On Valentine's Day, however, FEMA and CDC suddenly announced they were releasing the test results earlier than expected.

"This was completely contrary to their behavior up to this point," says Tony Buzbee, one of the seven attorneys representing thousands of FEMA trailer residents, including the Durands, who are suing trailer manufacturers over their health problems. "Every statement before this was 'There is no evidence of formaldehyde.' Then all of a sudden, they release these test results. Now there's a problem."

Indeed there is a problem. For the first time, the federal government has admitted that many of the FEMA-supplied trailers and mobile homes contain toxic levels of formaldehyde. About 38,000 households are still living in these units, primarily in Louisiana and Mississippi. According to the CDC, the average level in the 519 units that were tested was .077 parts per million of formaldehyde in air. This average is about five times higher than the amount of formaldehyde in new homes, which ranges from .010 ppm to .017 ppm. The highest level the CDC found was .59 ppm, or nearly 35 times that found in new homes. If all of these decimals and numbers seem confusing — they are. But Becky Gillette, chair of the Sierra Club's formaldehyde campaign (see "The Erin Brockovich of Formaldehyde"), reduced the results to simple terms. "People are literally being embalmed alive," she says.

Levels of formaldehyde found in trailers can cause respiratory illness, headaches, rashes and many other symptoms. But they are particularly hard on the health of the elderly, children and people with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma. "With formaldehyde, the degree of risk from chronic exposure is still somewhat uncertain," CDC Director Julie Gerberding said in the briefing. "But it is classified as a carcinogen."

Heat causes the pressed wood and particle board inside the trailers to release more formaldehyde. If the testing had been carried out "in the summer when the weather's warmer, we would probably see even higher levels in some of these trailers," she acknowledged.

As a result, CDC and FEMA recommend that people move out of these trailers before summer. In an effort to expedite their moves, FEMA says it will offer the following assistance:

Pay transportation relocation costs;

Contract directly with landlords and hotel/motel owners to eliminate credit and/or background issues;

Pay rent up front to landlords as well as necessary security deposits and utilities;

Utilize contract resources to support local relocation;

Provide food vouchers and stipends;

Contract for temporary storage and/or shipping of household property;

Pay for boarding and care of household pets; and

Work with volunteer agencies to provide furniture.

In the past, FEMA's relocation help rang hollow with many residents. FEMA Administrator David Paulison claims that "if someone calls with a health problem, we move them out immediately, like in the next few days." But this has not been the experience of many trailer residents. The FEMA caseworkers "tell you that there's a good chance within a month or so that you will be dropped from the program. So it's scary," Heather Durand says. "They tell you to make sure you have the money to cover the rent or the hotel costs because you may be dropped after a month. If you go into an apartment, you have to come up with the deposit and first month's rent, and now it's $1,000 or more. We don't have the money. And after a month, you'll have to cover the entire rent." Therefore the Durands, like others, have remained in their trailer.

But as the Feb. 14 briefing was in progress, FEMA representatives were going through the Pine Crest Mobile Home Park notifying FEMA trailer residents they had to move within 120 days because the park was closing. "I'm not sure where we'll go," Durand says.

FEMA is participating in meetings with CDC representatives that begin this week (see "Meetings For FEMA Trailer Residents") to discuss the test results and what the agency will do to help trailer residents relocate. Paulison says his agency has been helping 800 households per week move out of the trailers. But Bart Gordon, (D-Tenn.), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, calculates that at this rate, it will take FEMA at least 47 weeks to move the families who still are in the trailers into permanent housing, long past the summer. "This is completely unacceptable," Gordon says.

Even if the agency were to find housing by summer for everyone still in trailers, which is unlikely, this would not address the long-term health problems these trailers may have created. Paulison continues to say publicly that "We did not have a lot of information two years ago, or 18 months ago" about formaldehyde. But pleading ignorance is disingenuous when internal emails made public by Congress and former employees show that FEMA did know of the formaldehyde problem from its own local staff but did not want to test the trailers because it could open the agency up to liability. Instead, FEMA staff members were sent out to do "sniff tests" for formaldehyde odor and were discouraged from considering real testing. Complaints from trailer residents were ignored or ridiculed, says Jesse John Fineran, who at one time was FEMA's manager for all temporary housing units in Hancock County, Mississippi.

"In the Biloxi FEMA Mobile Home Operations office, the chief joked about the formaldehyde issue and proudly displayed a homemade "formaldehyde detector' on his desk. This consisted of a large, cardboard box with "FEMA FORMALDEHYDE TESTER' printed on the sides," Fineran recalls. "It had a light bulb, rubber hose and plastic funnel attached. Biloxi leadership claimed that formaldehyde was a nonissue and that if a housing applicant did not like the housing that FEMA had provided, FEMA would pick up the trailer and leave them homeless." He continued to tell his superiors about the problems he was hearing about formaldehyde from trailer residents. "They certainly knew about it in late 2005 or early 2006," he says.

In the spring of 2006, the Sierra Club began testing trailers because of health complaints from its members. No official federal standard for formaldehyde in indoor air or for travel trailers has ever been set. In 1999, the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommended a "minimal risk level" of .008 ppm when humans are chronically exposed to formaldehyde. This is a level at which scientists concur there would be little risk of most adverse health effects from formaldehyde. The first Sierra Club tests showed all trailers tested were significantly higher than the ATSDR minimal risk level, and more than 80 percent were above the .1 ppm level at which the EPA had said health effects could be expected.

Becky Gillette tried to discuss the results with FEMA. "We couldn't find anyone in FEMA to accept our results," she says. "We were trying to write to them to let them know about this, but nobody would even acknowledge our correspondence."

After a resident in St. Tammany Parish was found dead in his trailer at the end of June 2006, and an infant died in a trailer in Texas that August, FEMA made plans to test unoccupied trailers in the fall of 2006. Those tests showed levels of formaldehyde were high enough to cause serious respiratory health effects, but FEMA did not make this information public. Instead, the agency distributed pamphlets about ventilation techniques to residents, but provided little information about the health hazards of exposure.

Under pressure from Congress, the agency late last summer finally agreed to test a sample of 500 occupied trailers. The testing was delayed twice. At the request of residents, U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhard in New Orleans directed FEMA to present to the court a detailed plan for the testing by Dec. 17, 2007. On Dec. 13, FEMA announced in New Orleans and Washington that the CDC finally would begin testing occupied trailers. Most tests were conducted in January, the coldest and least humid month, when formaldehyde levels were expected to be at their lowest.

"For every 18-degree rise in temperature, you have a doubling of formaldehyde concentration in the air — this is one of the chemical properties of matter," industrial hygienist Mary DeVany says. Her firm, DeVany Industrial Consultants, has tested hundreds of FEMA trailers for the Sierra Club and for attorneys in the formaldehyde lawsuit. "So if you take the average that CDC reported for winter of .077 ppm on, say, a 50-degree day, then at 86 degrees, the formaldehyde level would be an estimated .308." That's about 39 times higher than the level of formaldehyde found in the air of the average new home and 39 times the minimal risk level for chronic exposure set by the ATSDR. "When you hear people say, "The formaldehyde seems so much worse when it gets hotter and more humid,'" DeVany adds. "My God, it is much worse."

DeVany's company tested some 550 trailers for the Buzbee law firm in late August and September of 2007. All were above the ATSDR's .008 level, and nearly half had formaldehyde levels above .1 ppm. The average of all of them came in at about .14, or double the amount found by the CDC.

Whatever set of numbers are used, the government's confirmation that toxic levels of formaldehyde exist in the trailers promises to have a significant impact on the formaldehyde litigation. FEMA will be joined with the manufacturers as a defendant in the suit on March 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans. "So the focus is moving next toward the manufacturers," plaintiffs' attorney Buzbee says. Congress' House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has requested hundreds of documents by March 7 from Gulf Stream Coach, Pilgrim, and Coachmen Industries on their dealings with FEMA in supplying the trailers as well as all information on formaldehyde in the materials used in the trailers.

All of this information about formaldehyde should have come to light much sooner. Dr. Christopher DeRosa, an ATSDR scientist, wanted FEMA and the CDC to go public on the long-term health risks long ago. FEMA asked DeRosa, then director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, to determine a "safe" level for formaldehyde in the trailers. He refused. "Since it is a carcinogen, it is a matter of science policy that there is no "safe' level of exposure," DeRosa wrote in an email to his boss, ATSDR Director Howard Frumkin.

So when FEMA wanted ATSDR to analyze the test results of the unoccupied trailers in 2006 and write a "health consultation" on the testing, it avoided DeRosa and instead sought assistance from ATSDR's Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response. Officials in that office quietly tapped members of DeRosa's staff to prepare a report on the unoccupied trailers that evaluated only their short-term health effects. DeRosa discovered the report had been written without his knowledge or input nearly a month after it had been completed and sent to FEMA on Feb. 1, 2007. Shocked, DeRosa wrote Frumkin that his staff "indicated to me that they had been directed to not share the information further, and not to address the longer-term health effects."

Once he saw the final document, DeRosa fired off complaints to Frumkin about it being "incomplete and misleading." DeRosa proposed writing to FEMA that — any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk, regardless of duration." He called the agencies' failure to communicate this information to residents living in the trailers "misleading and a threat to public health."

In March, 2007, Frumkin told DeRosa he agreed that "We need to amend our health consultation (report) with information on cancer risk." But it was not until October 2007, seven months later and after hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into formaldehyde dangers in the FEMA trailers, that the health consultation was revised to include the risk of nose, throat and other cancers associated with formaldehyde.

DeRosa's victory was short-lived. Just days after the revised document was posted on the CDC Web site, DeRosa was given an "unfavorable" job evaluation, his first in 23 years of federal service at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the CDC. "I was told my job performance was unsatisfactory because I was not a team player," he says. "There in the packet was also a memo removing me as director of the Division of Toxicology."

DeRosa now has the title of Acting Special Assistant for Toxicology in Frumkin's office. Though he can always find work to do, he has no specific duties. His office has been moved twice, and he says he's spending a lot of his time packing and unpacking boxes. "My desk is on wheels now," he jokes. But DeRosa would be the last person to make light of the possible impact formaldehyde could have on those who have lived in the FEMA trailers for as long as two and a half years.

"The fact is that formaldehyde is just a marker for other gases that are also being released from the particle board, glues and adhesives that we haven't even considered yet — chemicals like trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, methyl chloride, toluene," DeRosa says. Most of these are suspected or known carcinogens, or cause reproductive and developmental damage to children and infants. "You've got 150,000 families, and the latency period (for cancer and developmental effects) may be years or decades. The question now becomes: What happens to these people through time? What's happening to the children? We don't know."

Some trailer residents are already showing signs of long-term health damage. Steve and Lindsay Huckabee and their five children have lived in FEMA mobile homes in Kiln, Miss., since the storm. The mobile homes tested by CDC showed slightly lower levels of formaldehyde, but the difference was minimal — about .059 ppm compared to .081 ppm in the travel trailers on average. The Huckabee children have suffered frequent nosebleeds, sinus and ear infections, asthma, pneumonia, unexplained rashes and more.

This past year Steve Huckabee developed an aggressive tumor in the roof of his mouth. "Steve breathes through his mouth when he's sleeping," Lindsay says. While there is no proof the tumor was caused by formaldehyde, the couple suspects a link to the chemical. Steve does not smoke. The ear, nose and throat specialist who treated him said he had never seen a tumor in that spot in the mouth before. "Though it was not cancerous, it was classified as malignant," Lindsay says, "because it would damage the surrounding tissue, and it had to be removed."

With Steve's tumor surgery, the children's' endoscopic sinus surgery, ear tube replacement, and other problems, the Huckabees have spent about $6,000 out of pocket on medical bills in the last year. They are among the lucky ones. They have health insurance through Steve's job, and they estimate their insurance company has probably spent an additional $69,000 on medical bills, for a total of $75,000 for the year, a substantial portion of it linked to formaldehyde exposure.

When a reporter asked if FEMA intended to cover residents' medical expenses for illnesses linked to formaldehyde, FEMA's David Paulison declined to give a definitive answer. "We haven't looked at that particular piece of it yet you know, we don't know a lot about formaldehyde," he said. "I don't."

The Huckabees, who know more about formaldehyde than they ever wanted to, plan to move out of their mobile home in the next few months. Renters before Katrina, they have saved enough money to purchase a piece of land and plan to construct a modular house. The Durands also want to move out of their trailer. They hope the upcoming meetings with CDC and FEMA will offer a plan to help residents who can't afford post-hurricane rents.

But even as people leave their FEMA trailers behind and move into permanent housing, Chris DeRosa fears they may never truly escape the impact of living for so long in the chemical soup inside those trailers. Everything he has learned about toxic chemicals in a three-decade career tells him that the story of formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers is not yet over. "It's only the end of the beginning, I'm afraid," he says.

Amanda Spake is a Katrina Media Fellow. Research for this story was supported by the Open Society Institute.

Meetings For FEMA Trailer Residents

Residents of FEMA-supplied units and concerned individuals are invited to attend one of seven public availability sessions in Louisiana to explain the preliminary results from testing. Following the presentation, CDC scientists and members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps will be available to speak one-on-one with residents about health concerns related to living in the trailers. FEMA representatives also will be available to discuss housing options.

Following is a schedule of sessions in Louisiana:

Monday, Feb. 25, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Baker Municipal Center (3325 Groom Road, Baker)

Tuesday, Feb. 26, noon to 2 p.m., St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church (2300 Crowder Blvd.)

Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., St. Anna's Episcopal Church (1313 Esplanade Ave.)

Wednesday, Feb. 27, noon to 2 p.m., Nunez Community College Auditorium (3700 Fenelon St., Chalmette)

Wednesday, Feb. 27, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Joseph S. Yenni Government Building (1221 Elmwood Park Blvd., Second Floor Council Chambers, Jefferson)

Thursday, Feb. 28, noon to 2 p.m., Lake Charles Civic Center (900 Lakeshore Drive, Contraband Room, Lake Charles)

Thursday, Feb. 28, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Lake Charles Civic Center (900 Lakeshore Drive, Contraband Room, Lake Charles)

Heather Durand, who lives in a FEMA trailer in Slidell, says she and her husband both have suffered chronic health problems since they moved into the trailer about two years ago. They want to move, but fear they don't have enough money to pay post-Katrina rents. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Heather Durand, who lives in a FEMA trailer in Slidell, says she and her husband both have suffered chronic health problems since they moved into the trailer about two years ago. They want to move, but fear they don't have enough money to pay post-Katrina rents.

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