Agency wants to get hurricane victims out of travel trailers

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,

Walker said.

"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."