FEMA Mandates Stricter IAQ Requirements for Its Trailers

Blasted by critics after many residents of FEMA-issued trailers were forced to evacuate the so-called "toxic tin cans" in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now setting strict new limits on formaldehyde levels in the mobile homes it buys for disaster victims. All future temporary housing units the agency purchases must meet strict new procurement specifications for indoor air quality, including a requirement for significantly reduced formaldehyde emission levels inside the units, making them comparable to levels in conventional housing, the agency said.

The requirement will cover a three-year contract to purchase up to 3,300 units and a smaller contract for units intended for disabled residents. Some will be available for this year's hurricane season, the agency said.

Formaldehyde is a preservative commonly used in building materials. Prolonged exposure can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer. The primary method for lowering formaldehyde levels in temporary housing units involves removing products that release elevated levels of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. This means that products containing formaldehyde or VOCs, such as medium-density fiber products, all vinyl gypsum board, all urea formaldehyde-emitting materials, and high formaldehyde-emitting insulation products must not be present in the units. Also, to ensure proper air circulation, FEMA is requiring that all newly purchased housing units comply with HUD's 35 percent minimum air exchange rate per hour for manufactured housing.

Procurement specifications differ for units depending on whether they are intended to be used in warmer U.S. climates or colder U.S. climates. Additionally, construction and outfitting standards identify minimum square footage of living space, floor plan configuration, finishes, furnishing and environmental living conditions necessary to provide emergency housing for disaster relief operations. All units accepted by FEMA will emit "limited or no detectable levels of formaldehyde," the agency said. Testing will be conducted for each unit at the manufacturing plant before the unit leaves the plant.

"There is no national standard for formaldehyde levels in American homes; not conventional stick-built homes, not manufactured homes," FEMA Administrator David Paulison said in a news release issued Friday. "Until such a time as there is a consensus standard, we will take extraordinary precautions and require that all new-production units that FEMA purchases test below the lowest existing 'standard' and below the midpoint of the range that CDC calls 'typical' for conventional homes."

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