Dying for a Home: Toxic Trailers Are Making Katrina Refugees Ill
FEMA-supplied trailers for displaced Gulf Coast residents were found to be emitting extremely high levels of formaldehyde vapors, causing serious health problems for previously healthy people. Amanda Spake investigates, in this article originally published in the February 15, 2007, issue of The Nation.
Image: Toxic Trailers
Amanda Spake

Along the Gulf Coast, in the towns and fishing villages from New Orleans to Mobile, survivors of Hurricane Katrina are suffering from a constellation of similar health problems. They wake up wheezing, coughing and gasping for breath. Their eyes burn; their heads ache; they feel tired, lethargic. Nosebleeds are common, as are sinus infections and asthma attacks. Children and seniors are most severely afflicted, but no one is immune.

There's one other similarity: The people suffering from these illnesses live in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

An estimated 275,000 Americans are living in more than 102,000 travel trailers and mobile homes that FEMA purchased after Hurricane Katrina. The price tag for the trailers was more than $2.6 billion, according to FEMA. Despite their cost of about $15,000 each, most are camperlike units, designed for overnight stays. Even if the best materials had been used in their construction—and that is a point of debate—they would not be appropriate for full-time living, according to experts on mobile homes. The interiors are fabricated from composite wood, particle board and other materials that emit formaldehyde, a common but toxic chemical.

"Over the course of three months, I saw several dozen families with these health problems. That's really high, and this isn't something I'd seen in my practice before. All of them were living in FEMA trailers." —Scott Needle, Pediatrician

"Formaldehyde is a very powerful irritant," says Mary DeVany, an industrial hygienist in Vancouver, Washington. "When you inhale the vapors ... the breathing passages close off." The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that more than 0.1 parts per million of formaldehyde in air can cause eye, lung and nose irritation. Few scientists dispute the chemical's power to worsen respiratory health. Yet there is no federal standard for formaldehyde in indoor air, or for travel trailers, and no consensus on whether any "safe" level exists.

Last summer FEMA began distributing a leaflet to trailer residents explaining that the materials used in the interiors can release toxic vapors. The agency suggests residents keep windows and doors open and the air conditioner on, yet reduce heat and humidity. (The Gulf's hot, humid climate increases the rate at which materials release formaldehyde.)

FEMA has not responded to requests for the total number of complaints it has received about formaldehyde—some media reports put the number at forty-six. The agency does say that seventeen trailers in Louisiana had to be replaced because of the chemical.

Many residents suffering from symptoms, however, are afraid to complain to FEMA, fearing the agency will take away the only housing they can afford. It was complaints of respiratory problems to the Sierra Club that led the organization to test fifty-two FEMA trailers last April, June and July. Some 83 percent of the thirteen different types tested had formaldehyde in the indoor air at levels above the EPA recommended limit.

Air sampling by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at holding stations where groups of trailers were kept before they were set up revealed high formaldehyde levels even in outdoor air. At the holding station in Pass Christian, Mississippi, formaldehyde in outdoor air was thirty to fifty times the level recommended by the EPA, and several times OSHA's workplace standard.

One of the first to notice an unusual number of illnesses among trailer residents was pediatrician Scott Needle of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. "I was seeing kids and families coming in with repeated, prolonged respiratory illnesses—sinus infections, lingering coughs, viral infections that didn't go away," Needle says. The mothers told him that their children had never been sick like this before. Some of the infants had to be hospitalized. "Over the course of three months, I saw several dozen families with these health problems. That's really high, and this isn't something I'd seen in my practice before. All of them were living in FEMA trailers."

Angela Orcut, a preschool teacher, and her three year-old son, Nicholas, are typical of Needle's patients. "Ever since we've lived in this trailer, Nickie wakes up every morning choking and coughing," Orcut says. "He's had so many sinus infections since we moved in here." At night, when the family returns to the closed-up trailer, "the smell burns our noses and our eyes," she says.

Like many trailer residents, Orcut has not filed a complaint with FEMA. "I'm afraid if I complain, they'll take the trailer away," she says. "Then where will we live?"