Federal disaster officials plan to move
thousands of hurricane victims out of travel trailers as worries
grow that people might have been living for months in
government-issued campers contaminated with a carcinogen.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also plans to stop using
travel trailers in future disasters until it feels it can deliver
safe ones, Aaron Walker, a FEMA spokesman, said Friday.
The plan calls for disbanding government trailer sites on the
Gulf Coast and offering safe mobile homes, hotel rooms or
apartments to those who need living space as they rebuild
hurricane-damaged homes. The moves come as worries grow that the
campers are not safe, possibly because particle board in their
construction contains high levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen
that can cause respiratory problems.
"FEMA takes these concerns seriously," FEMA administrator R.
David Paulison wrote in a July 31 memo obtained by The Associated
Press that spells out the plan of action.
Concerns about formaldehyde contamination have existed for more
than a year, but FEMA was slow to react, and when it did,
downplayed the health risk. But lawsuits, environmental groups and
warnings by independent experts and doctors have pushed FEMA to
seriously re-evaluate the risks.
Thad Godish, a formaldehyde expert with Ball State University
who has acted as an independent expert in evaluating the FEMA
trailers, said the formaldehyde levels were very high - some
reaching more than 1 part per million - in some trailers previously
tested by federal regulators.
At such high levels, he said people, especially children younger
than 6, are likely be affected.
"You're simply sick all the time," Godish said. "It's
basically upper respiratory, nose, throat irritation, headaches,
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is examining the
possible toxicity of the trailers and issued a health advisory
because of the uncertainties. It appears the problems stemmed from
manufacturers buying materials from countries such as Malaysia,
where formaldehyde regulations are slack, Godish said. Unlike
mobile homes, there are no federal formaldehyde standards for
Jay Wilson, executive director of the Colorado-based Disaster
Emergency Response Association, said the move was effectively an
unprecedented recall of a product issued by a federal agency.
"I can't personally think of any other time when FEMA or HUD
has had a major reversal in a program where they distributed
something like trailers and came sometime later to realize there
was some risk to it," he said.
Moving families out of trailers will undoubtedly run into
logistical difficulties because of the high volume of people still
in travel trailers two years after major hurricanes pummeled the
Gulf Coast in 2005. There are about 65,000 trailers still in use on
the Gulf Coast. There is no start date yet for the new policy,
"Our goal is to match the families with the rentals out here,"
said Andrew Thomas, a FEMA spokesman in New Orleans. So far, FEMA
has lined up about 4,500 rental units in Louisiana, but that falls
far short of what could be required to house the people who could
need new housing. There are about 45,000 trailers still in use in
It may be a logistical feat to rapidly move the remaining
families out of trailers, but it won't be hard to find takers.
Paul Nelson blames the death of his 74-year-old mother last
October on bad air in the trailer she was forced to live in after
Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything on the family's Coden, Ala.,
plot next to the Gulf of Mexico, where they ran an oyster business.
Her death was caused by pneumonia and heart problems, he said.
She never had lung problems before moving into the trailer. An
independent test using a kit provided by the Sierra Club found high
levels of formaldehyde, he said.
"End of August here will be two years of people living in these
things. This is wrong," Nelson said. "I can't bring my mother
back, but get the people out of these trailers, get these children
out of the trailers and put them in some other accommodation."