Hurricane victims urged to move from FEMA trailers after tests find toxic fumes
U.S. health officials are urging that Gulf Coast hurricane victims be moved out of their government-issued trailers as quickly as possible...
AP Medical Writer
ATLANTA, Ga. — U.S. health officials are urging that Gulf Coast hurricane victims be moved out of their government-issued trailers as quickly as possible after tests found toxic levels of formaldehyde fumes.
Fumes from 519 trailer and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi were — on average — about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some trailers, the levels were nearly 40 times customary exposure levels, raising fears that residents could contract respiratory problems.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency — which supplied the trailers — should move people out quickly, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions, said Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards.
"We do not want people exposed to this for very much longer," McGeehin said.
In New Orleans, Jim Herring, 63, who recently moved back into his partially renovated house in the badly flooded Lakeview neighborhood, said he wasn't surprised about the finding.
"The workmanship is pathetic," said Herring, a retiree who worked for 25 years in a chemical plant.
Herrings and his wife Susan decided not to stay in their trailer, which they received in April 2007. Both Herrings are smokers, but Jim said he did not have a cough until they moved into it.
"Let's face it, these things were not meant to be lived in for a year," Jim Herring said.
While there are no federal safety standard for formaldehyde fumes in homes, the levels found in the trailers are high enough to cause burning eyes and breathing problems for people who have asthma or sensitivity to air pollutants, said McGeehin.
CDC officials said the study did not prove people became sick from the fumes, but merely took a snapshot reading of fume levels. Only formaldehyde was tested, they added.
FEMA provided about 120,000 travel trailers to victims of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2006, some occupants began reporting headaches and nosebleeds.
The complaints were linked to formaldehyde, a colorless gas with a pungent smell used in the production of plywood and resins.
Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Last May, FEMA officials dismissed findings by environmentalists that the trailers posed serious health risks. They said the trailers conformed to industry standards.
By August, about 1,000 families in Louisiana asked FEMA to move them to other quarters. In November, lawyers for a group of hurricane victims asked a federal judge to order FEMA to test for hazardous fumes.
The CDC, working with FEMA, hired a contractor. The firm — Bureau Veritas North America — tested air samples from 358 travel trailers, 82 park model and 79 mobile homes.
Analysis of the samples, taken from Dec. 21 through Jan. 23, came back last week, McGeehin said.
They found average levels of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air, significantly higher than the 10 to 17 parts per billion concentration seen in newer homes. Levels were as high as 590 parts per billion.
The highest concentrations were in travel trailers, which are smaller and more poorly ventilated, McGeehin said.
Indoor air temperature was a significant factor in raising formaldehyde levels, independent of trailer make or model, CDC officials said. McGeehin said that's why the CDC would like residents out before summer.
A broader-based children's health study is also in the works, McGeehin said.
Last week, congressional Democrats accused FEMA of manipulating scientific research in order to play down the danger posed by formaldehyde in the trailers.
In its initial round of testing, FEMA took samples from unoccupied trailers that had been aired out for days and compared them with federal standards for short-term exposure, according to the lawmakers.
Legislators also said the CDC ignored research from — and then demoted — one of its own experts, who concluded any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk. A CDC spokesman has denied the allegations.
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