Dying for a Home: Toxic Trailers Are Making Katrina Refugees Ill
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The Department of Housing and Urban Development has set standards to limit formaldehyde in building materials used in manufactured housing and mobile homes. But for travel trailers and recreational vehicles there is no federal standard. One reason, says the RV Consumer Group's Gallant, is that travel trailers are intended only for short trips, not full-time living. But FEMA's James McIntyre says that travel trailers "have traditionally been used in disasters for temporary housing." He adds, "Cost is one factor." A mobile home for full-time use costs in excess of $30,000, but a travel trailer is half that, or less.

Whatever specifications FEMA may have set for trailer manufacturers regarding formaldehyde, they have not been made public. In Congressional hearings last February, Richard Skinner, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, testified that some trailer contracts "did not specify minimum specifications requirements, making it possible that some trailers ... had significant deficiencies." Even those made according to specifications, Skinner said, were accepted by FEMA "without any formal inspection procedures."

FEMA has now undertaken testing of its trailers. At FEMA's request, the EPA recently sampled air in 96 unoccupied trailers that FEMA calls comparable to those used by Katrina evacuees, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are analyzing the results.

But Bay St. Louis pediatrician Scott Needle questions this approach. "What is the problem with testing the trailers that people are living in?" he asks. He tried to convince the Mississippi Department of Health and the CDC to do an independent study on the illnesses. The state, he says, told him, "We don't have anyone to spare right now." The CDC agreed that such a study would be a good idea, he says, but the federal agency has to be asked to help by the state. Mississippi hasn't asked.

For its part, the Mississippi Department of Health says it "does not have statutory authority to regulate indoor air quality, including formaldehyde within travel trailers." Needle says he wasn't asking for regulation, just investigation. The department, however, says it never received his request for an investigation.

Last month FEMA agreed that those displaced by Katrina could remain in their trailers until August of this year. That's six months longer than the eighteen months mandated by federal law. No one expects this to be long enough. Very little new or affordable housing is being built on the Gulf Coast, and prices and rents for existing homes have skyrocketed because of the short supply.

Though $388 million was awarded to five states in December to design new model homes for use after disasters, survivors of the next storm are more likely to benefit. It seems clear that many Katrina evacuees living in FEMA trailers will be in them for months, if not years.

Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Charlie Melancon wrote to R. David Paulison, director of FEMA, last summer, asking about the formaldehyde-emitting materials used in the trailers and steps being taken to prevent exposure. John D'Araujo, FEMA's director of recovery, responded by describing the leaflet the agency distributes about ventilation, and noted its agreement with the EPA to test some unoccupied trailers. No test results or new recommendations have been released.

Waxman has not decided whether to hold hearings on the formaldehyde issue, but he's not giving up on it. "I remain concerned that many evacuees have been and continue to be exposed to hazardous levels of formaldehyde gas in their FEMA-issued trailers," he says. "And I hope that FEMA will be more responsive to the new Congress."

Published on February 26, 2007 in The Nation. Copyright © 2007 by The Nation. Reprinted with permission.