Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

FEMA Trailers May Be Making Residents Sick

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has started testing FEMA trailers for formaldehyde levels after residents complained about respiratory illnesses, nosebleeds and headaches.

Trailer residents worry the health problems are linked to high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. Tens of thousands are still living in the trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi, more than two years after Hurricane Katrina wiped out their homes.

They blame FEMA for the problems.

In the Renaissance Village trailer park just north of Baton Rouge, La., hundreds of white FEMA trailers sit side-by-side along gravel roads. It's rainy, chilly and desolate here. A bright spot is the blue mobile medical unit that visits twice a week to take care of children and young mothers.

LaTonya London has brought in her 3-year-old son, Darrell, for a checkup. One reason she came is because she's worried about the formaldehyde level in trailers. "I'm concerned because my kids are getting sick over that stuff," she says.

London and others say their children are having problems they had not seen until they started living in FEMA trailers. Two of her boys and her daughter were treated for rashes. Her 1-year-old son was put on breathing treatments. She says she hasn't been sick.

Headaches, Skin Rashes and Nosebleeds

Formaldehyde is a widely used chemical found in plastics, insulation and furniture. It's also used in disinfectants, adhesive materials and in construction, including the construction of travel trailers. It is a known carcinogen.

Dr. Heidi Sinclair is the medical director for the Baton Rouge Children's Health Project. She has treated many of the children who live in Renaissance Village trailer park for chronic sinus infections, nosebleeds, skin rashes, headaches and aggravated asthma symptoms.

"I've seen more children with headaches, "she says. "Children with headaches are not that common." Sinclair has seen a lot of children with nosebleeds, too.

She says the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (irritated and inflamed nasal passages) and dermatitis (skin rashes) are especially tough to control.

There's no scientific proof that formaldehyde has caused the symptoms that Dr. Sinclair is seeing. But she says increased levels of the chemical are most likely contributing to many of these illnesses.

Testing Levels

Since the spring of 2006, the Sierra Club documented complaints about formaldehyde levels in trailers. Last year, the EPA tested 96 unoccupied units for formaldehyde and had the CDC evaluate the results.

But none of the information came out until a federal hearing was conducted by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last July. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) the committee chairman, grilled FEMA Director David Paulison.

"Did you test any other occupied trailers?" Waxman asked Paulison.

"We did not test occupied trailers," Paulson replied. "We went along with the advice that we received from EPA and CDC that if we ventilated the trailers that would reduce the formaldehyde issue."

Waxman pressed on, asking Paulison if FEMA tested to see whether ventilating the trailers in fact reduced formaldehyde levels. Paulison said that it did reduce levels in the empty trailers.

But Waxman interrupted the response, repeating that FEMA tests were conducted only on empty trailers with blowing fans, open windows and constant air conditioning.

Waxman asked Paulison again, "What about where people were living?"

Memos from FEMA's attorneys and senior staff show the agency blocked the testing of occupied trailers.

"Once you get results   the clock is running on our duty to respond to them," according to the memos.

In the FEMA testing of closed-up trailers, formaldehyde levels averaged 1.04 parts per million. That's significantly higher than maximum workplace levels recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and three times higher than OSHA's recommendation for exposure during an 8-hour work day. Residents in this case are exposed to the conditions 24-hours a day.

Formaldehyde levels did drop when trailers had their windows open or air-conditioning systems turned on, but many say the levels are still too high and pose a risk for residents.

The Huckabees

Lindsay Huckabee is among those who testified about her family's health problems.

"I came home one afternoon and found my daughter. Her hand was over her nose. She was covered in blood," Huckabee said. She testified that it was frightening that she didn't rush to her daughter or think anything was wrong with her child because she has had so many nosebleeds.

Huckabee told the committee, "It is very sad to me that I've gotten to the point where it is a common practice to see my child covered in blood and (for) it to not scare me."

Huckabee lives in Kiln, Miss., with her husband and five children. She says she called FEMA about the health issues but no one from the government responded.

"It made me furious to find out the whole time we were sick and trying to figure out what was wrong with us, FEMA knew," Huckabee says. "They knew they had a formaldehyde problem."

FEMA would not do an interview on this issue. A spokesman says the agency is updating its policy. In the congressional hearing, Paulison did say that FEMA now recognizes the issue.

Since the hearing, FEMA says about 4,000 people have either requested or been offered alternative housing due to formaldehyde concerns. Nearly 1,500 of those have moved into new housing.

Meanwhile, the CDC has just started collecting data in trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana for a new study. Howard Frumkin, director of the environmental health centers at CDC, said formaldehyde does rise to very worrisome levels among mobile homes that are closed up, especially when they are warm.

"Simple interventions, like air conditioning and opening the windows can bring the formaldehyde levels down," Frumkin says, "But not down far as we would have liked."

In Mississippi, Lindsay Huckabee still lives in a FEMA trailer with her family. All of her children are still sick with respiratory problems, including asthma. Her husband has had chronic sinus infections.

Huckabee says she spends $400 to $500 a month on medical bills. She would like to move out, but even though both she and her husband have jobs, it has been difficult to find a place to live.

Huckabee says she would have to pay at least $1,500 to $1,900 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. "We've just been kind of biding our time trying to figure out where to go," she said.

The cost of apartments and rental homes along the Gulf Coast has more than doubled since the hurricane. "I don't want to get into something that we can't afford and then not have anyplace to go," she said.

FEMA has offered Huckabee 30 days in a motel. She's afraid to take them up on it. If she can't find a home during that time, she worries she would have nowhere to move and no trailer to come back to.

Audio at: