Those FEMA Trailers

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Friday, February 22, 2008

THE CENTERS for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed last week what many on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi had been complaining about for years: The formaldehyde used in the materials that make up the travel trailers and mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was making occupants ill. While we're happy that FEMA is jumping into action to relocate the more than 38,000 families in that housing, we are disturbed by how long all this took.

The issue burst into the open last July when a congressional hearing revealed internal FEMA e-mail acknowledging the existence of a problem as far back as 2006. A March 2006 e-mail message from a FEMA field worker urged that action be taken on complaints about high levels of formaldehyde in the air of travel trailers. But an agency official wrote in a June 2006 e-mail that the Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." This stunning revelation resulted in pressure on the agency to enlist the help of the CDC to conduct tests. Testing didn't begin until Dec. 21, 2007; it ended Jan. 23.

According to FEMA, a randomly chosen group of 519 travel trailers (the kind you hitch to the back of your car) and mobile homes was tested. The agency said that formaldehyde levels in indoor air commonly are between 10 and 20 parts per billion. But the average formaldehyde level in the tested trailers was 77 parts per billion, ranging from 3 parts per billion to an astounding 590 parts per billion. Long-term exposure to air tainted with formaldehyde, which can be increased by summer heat, can cause nosebleeds, itchy throats and eyes, pneumonia, and cancer. It should be noted that the problem is particularly acute in travel trailers because there are no federal standards regarding the use of formaldehyde in their manufacture. There's less of the toxic substance in the building materials used to make the larger mobile homes because they must adhere to federal standards administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

FEMA set up a formaldehyde call center last July. More than 7,000 households in four states have called it. All were immediately offered alternative housing. The 519 households tested by the CDC will be offered new accommodations. Those whose FEMA trailers haven't yet been tested will also be relocated. The elderly, the sick and families with children will go to the head of the line. This is good but bittersweet news. Nearly three years after Katrina created the largest U.S. internal migration ever caused by a natural disaster, it is a blight on this nation that many survivors remain uprooted.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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