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Tainted FEMA trailers should be destroyed, not sold

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A19

The Obama administration is making a big health-care mistake. I'm not talking about the final push for comprehensive reform legislation, which is righteous and necessary. I mean the sale of more than 100,000 contaminated trailers and mobile homes -- a move that could make people sick.

The trailers are a legacy of the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina. They were purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as temporary housing for displaced Gulf Coast residents, but some people who moved into them reported burning eyes, irritated throats, headaches and nosebleeds.

The Sierra Club began testing the air in some of the trailers in 2006 and found unusually high levels of formaldehyde. The government delayed almost two years, as reports of illness mounted, before declaring in 2008 that all those living in the trailers should move out.

Additional testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FEMA found that, on average, formaldehyde levels inside the trailers were five times higher than expected for indoor air. "Long-term exposure to levels in this range can be linked to an increased risk of cancer, and as levels rise above this range, there can also be a risk of respiratory illness," a CDC statement said. Formaldehyde is particularly dangerous for people with asthma or bronchitis.

The government did its testing in December and January, months when levels of the toxic chemical would be at their lowest. Warmer temperatures -- such as those common in the Gulf Coast area most of the year -- make the levels rise significantly.

In January, FEMA agreed to sell 93,000 trailers and 9,300 mobile homes -- virtually all the units it still owns -- for pennies on the dollar. The purchasers are wholesalers who plan to resell the mobile dwellings, and each unit will bear a sticker warning that it is for occasional use only, not residential use. The theory is that limited, episodic exposure to the formaldehyde -- as would be experienced by someone who used a trailer as a storage container, say, or as a seasonal hunting lodge -- is safer than continuous exposure from living, eating and sleeping inside.

Still, the federal government is selling housing units that it knows are unsafe to live in. For an administration that claims to believe in consumer protection, this is no way to show the love.

The sale, scheduled to become final in April, should not be allowed to proceed.

No warning sticker can absolve the government, the wholesalers and the eventual retailers of these trailers and mobile homes of their moral responsibility. Given the state of the economy -- especially the unabated national epidemic of foreclosures and evictions -- it is lunacy to pretend that families will not buy these units as primary residences.

Officials told The Post that there would be little demand for the trailers because so many are in poor condition, having sat unoccupied and unattended for so long. But my guess is that if problems such as mold, mildew and propane-gas leaks drive retail prices even lower, the number of potential buyers is only likely to increase. Things are tough out there, and even a musty trailer -- with a warning sticker -- is a more comfortable place to sleep than the back seat of a car.

FEMA spent $2.7 billion to buy the trailers and mobile homes and has spent an additional $220 million to store them. Selling the units is expected to recoup $279 million -- a significant amount of money, to be sure. But is it right for the government to release into the marketplace a product known to be defective? And even though the trailers are plastered with warning stickers, perhaps bearing a skull and crossbones, will that deter the inevitable lawsuits if buyers become ill?

These units don't need to be sold; they need to be destroyed. And the Environmental Protection Agency -- remember the EPA? -- needs to finally set standards for the presence of formaldehyde in indoor air.

The agency has known about the problem for more than two decades. In the late 1980s, dozens of employees at the agency's Washington headquarters reported respiratory and other symptoms after a remodeling. One of the chemicals being released by the newly installed building materials was, you guessed it, formaldehyde.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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