CDC Confirms Health Risks to Occupants of Trailers

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Federal health officials have confirmed that high levels of formaldehyde gas pose health risks to hurricane victims housed in 38,000 government trailers on the Gulf Coast, and will recommend that occupants be moved before temperatures rise this spring and summer, Bush administration officials disclosed yesterday.

Federal scientists will say that those who have chronic health conditions such as asthma, families with children, and older residents should be moved first. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to discuss the recommendation today in New Orleans and to begin consultations with all of the roughly 100,000 trailer occupants, an official said.

The findings cap nearly two years of internal government deliberation over the housing of hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors in the trailers, and come 23 months after FEMA first received reports of health problems and test results showing formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold.

In an interview, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said the new findings amount to a wake-up call "to move people who have been reluctant to move, and to move us in government to do more to find reliable housing" for hurricane survivors. She said most of the 520 housing units tested in Louisiana and Mississippi showed the presence of formaldehyde below 100 parts per billion, but a small number had levels five times as high.

"If levels are high today, that means people in housing vulnerable to formaldehyde could be exposed to health effects now. We're also concerned because they've been in there 18 months, and even a low level could result in large cumulative exposure," Gerberding said. "We know less about effects of chronic exposure. It's very important we reduce it as much and as quickly as we can, and the way to do that is to get people out of these homes."

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized what he depicted as the Bush administration's tardy response. "After dragging its feet for over a year, the administration has finally come clean and released data on the health risks facing occupants of travel trailers in the Gulf Coast. I fully expect FEMA to comply with CDC's recommendation and begin moving people out immediately," Thompson said.

Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative, can cause vision and respiratory problems, and long-term exposure has been linked to cancer, as well as to asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.

FEMA announced plans in July to test the occupied trailers after congressional investigators accused it of suppressing internal warnings about the problem. Testing finally began in late December. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre yesterday declined to discuss the CDC's report, but noted that FEMA is already moving 800 families a week out of trailers.

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