CDC, FEMA: Formaldehyde Levels in Gulf Coast Trailers Too High

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA provided either mobile homes or travel trailers to displaced Gulf Coast residents who had lost their homes. Residents of these units have raised concerns about air quality in the trailers and the occurrence of respiratory and other symptoms resulting from exposure to formaldehyde or other respiratory irritants among residents of the mobile homes. CDC has been working with FEMA to investigate the health concerns of those living in the trailers and mobile homes and to take action to protect residents' health, and at a news conference yesterday CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said that tests of 519 of the units in Louisiana and Mississippi revealed levels of formaldehyde that were "higher than would be expected indoors."

"These findings support FEMA's continued focus on finding permanent housing for everyone who has been living in travel trailers and mobile homes since the hurricanes," Gerberding said, noting that because the higher-than-typical levels were detected in December and January, the problem is only going to worsen in coming months, as weather gets warmer. Formaldehyde can cause serious breathing problems even in people who don not ordinarily have respiratory problems; summer humidity in the region will make accumulations of the suspected carcinogen worse.

"We . . . think that it would be beneficial for people who are displaying symptoms as well as households with children, elderly persons, or occupants with chronic respiratory illnesses to receive priority consideration for alternate housing," Gerberding said.

FEMA Administrator David Paulison said the agency is taking additional steps to expedite the relocation of residents from manufactured housing to apartments or other alternative housing including hotels, motels, and "Katrina cottages." "FEMA is leaning forward and will continue to act and provide information to our residents in an expedited manner," Paulison said.

An editorial in today's New York Times says "expedited" is apparently in the eyes of the beholder: "In June 2006, a man who had complained of formaldehyde fumes was found dead in his trailer," the editorial notes. "FEMA received many warnings, not only from the families who occupied the claustrophobic trailers but from the Environmental Protection Agency and, more recently, the House Committee on Science and Technology. Yet FEMA waited until the disease control centers had done the survey before seriously swinging into action."

To directly address trailer residents’ health concerns regarding formaldehyde exposure, CDC representatives will be available at public meetings in three locations in Louisiana on Feb. 25, 26, and 28, 2008, and in six locations in Mississippi from March 3 - 6, 2008. Meanwhile, CDC and FEMA recommend that Gulf Coast families living in travel trailers and mobile homes spend as much time outdoors in fresh air as possible. Residents should open windows to let fresh air in whenever possible, the agencies say, and try to maintain the temperature inside their travel trailers or mobile homes at the lowest comfortable level. Higher temperatures can cause greater release of formaldehyde. Those who have health concerns are encouraged to see a doctor or another medical professional.

The two agencies have established toll-free hotlines. FEMA employees are available to discuss housing concerns at 1-866-562-2381, or TTY 1-800-462-7585. CDC specialists will respond to health-related concerns at 1-800- CDC-INFO. For more information on the trailer study, visit http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehhe/trailerstudy/.

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