NPR logo

FEMA Warns Workers Not to Enter Stored Trailers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16143494/16143000" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
FEMA Warns Workers Not to Enter Stored Trailers

Katrina & Beyond

FEMA Warns Workers Not to Enter Stored Trailers

FEMA Warns Workers Not to Enter Stored Trailers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16143494/16143000" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

FEMA tells workers to stay out of thousands of its stored travel trailers, amid concerns about exposure to hazardous fumes. A spokeswoman says formaldehyde emission levels rise when the trailers are closed in heat and humidity without ventilation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

One more headache for FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, yesterday, said it has ordered its employees to stay out of some 70,000 travel trailers it stored along the Gulf Coast and across the country.

The agency is concerned about exposure to the toxic chemical formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen. For two years, FEMA has used the same type of trailers to house thousands of victims from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Thousands living in the trailers have complained of real headaches, nose bleeds and respiratory problems since early last year. Those symptoms could be linked to high levels of formaldehyde.

NPR's Kathy Lohr was just in the Gulf region reporting on this issue, and she joins us now.

Good morning.

KATHY LOHR: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've just said there are problems with formaldehyde, is that the reason FEMA is telling workers not top go into those trailers?

LOHR: Well, the latest policy stems from a series of recent e-mails where one FEMA employee was asking whether he could enter one of the stored trailers to close a vent - or whether that was against the FEMA regulations. Now, the head of the Baton Rouge field office responded by saying that nobody was supposed to enter the trailers that had been sitting around out in the sun.

LOHR: And a couple of days later, an industrial hygienist for FEMA, said that FEMA employees should not to enter any of the travel trailers that were being stored. Now a spokesman for FEMA, James Kaplan, told me that formaldehyde levels rise when these trailers are closed up without any ventilation. And he says, that's why they sent the notice to FEMA employees.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the health problem under these conditions?

LOHR: Well, these trailers are made with a lot of formaldehyde and it is a known carcinogen. The formaldehyde is in the carpets, it's in cabinets, draperies, insulation, and a lot of the material used in making the trailers.

And as far as right now, there is no federal standard for residential exposure to formaldehyde. The EPA did some tests on unoccupied trailers last year -again, these were unoccupied trailers - and found that in those the levels were significantly higher than the maximum levels recommended by OSHA for exposure during the eight-hour workday.

But residents, remember live in these trailers for 24 hours a day. So, when the trailers were aired out or had air-conditioning on, the formaldehyde levels did drop - but according to the CDC, not quite enough.

So FEMA spokesman, James Kaplan, says it's only the trailers that have been stored on lots in warm weather for months that are the problem.

Mr. JAMES KAPLAN (Spokesman, Federal Emergency Management Agency): Something that's been locked up and sealed and stored on the lot for sometimes over a year, doesn't have the opportunity for ventilation than a trailer that is occupied does. And we know it from our testing going back to 2006 when we saw that just simple ventilation can reduce, in most cases, formaldehyde dramatically.

LOHR: That was FEMA spokesman Jim Kaplan, and he says FEMA employees do go into the occupied trailers every day.

MONTAGNE: So, affectively, is FEMA saying these trailers are pretty safe for people who actually live in them?

LOHR: I don't think FEMA is making that claim, they are going to do some more testing. But, what they do know is that there are families living in more than 52,000 trailers, still, in Louisiana and Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast and they have had a lot of health problems.

After visiting with folks in the gulf last week, I saw families with children who were still living in the trailers and had many symptoms, including the headaches, nose bleeds, skin rashes, asthma and lots of respiratory problems.

There is no scientific proof that formaldehyde has caused all the symptoms, but many doctors do say formaldehyde does contribute to the symptoms.

MONTAGNE: So, for future disasters, what does this mean for people who might need these trailers?

LOHR: Well, FEMA has decided not to use the trailers for emergency housing. In fact, they sold several thousand of these same trailers earlier this year, to people who were living in them or to businesses, but they're now buying those back because of health concerns. And FEMA says it's going to start testing the trailers that people are still living in, in the next few weeks to determine the levels of formaldehyde and possible safety issues.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kathy Lohr. Thanks very much.

LOHR: Always a pleasure.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

FEMA Trailers May Be Making Residents Sick

FEMA Trailers May Be Making Residents Sick

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15811496/15817005" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Dr. Heidi Sinclair examines 3-year-old Darrell London in the mobile medical unit at Renaissance Village trailer park north of Baton Rouge, La. The mobile unit visits this trailer park two days a week. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR

Dr. Heidi Sinclair examines 3-year-old Darrell London in the mobile medical unit at Renaissance Village trailer park north of Baton Rouge, La. The mobile unit visits this trailer park two days a week.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

Dr. Sinclair consults with Darrell and his mother, LaTonya. Sinclair has treated Darrell for a skin rash and respiratory problems that could be linked to high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR

Dr. Sinclair consults with Darrell and his mother, LaTonya. Sinclair has treated Darrell for a skin rash and respiratory problems that could be linked to high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

Renaissance Village trailer park is one of the largest FEMA villages built after residents of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans lost their homes in hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At one point, there were about 600 trailers here. About 400 trailers remain on the site, home to some 1,500 people. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR

Renaissance Village trailer park is one of the largest FEMA villages built after residents of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans lost their homes in hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At one point, there were about 600 trailers here. About 400 trailers remain on the site, home to some 1,500 people.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

The Huckabees, from left: Caitlin, 8; Lelah, 6; Steven, 4; Steve Huckabee; Michael, 21 months; Lindsay; and Vicki, 12. Courtesy Huckabee family hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Huckabee family

The Huckabees, from left: Caitlin, 8; Lelah, 6; Steven, 4; Steve Huckabee; Michael, 21 months; Lindsay; and Vicki, 12.

Courtesy Huckabee family

Lindsay Huckabee lives with her husband and five children in a FEMA trailer in Kiln, Miss. She says all of her children have had health issues since they moved in, including respiratory problems, nosebleeds and asthma symptoms. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR

Lindsay Huckabee lives with her husband and five children in a FEMA trailer in Kiln, Miss. She says all of her children have had health issues since they moved in, including respiratory problems, nosebleeds and asthma symptoms.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

Report on Formaldehyde Levels

Read the Department of Health and Human Services report on formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers, released in October 2007:

FEMA Trailer Stats

According to FEMA, as of Oct. 16, 2007:

  • 4,100 requested or were offered alternative housing because of concerns about formaldehyde
  • 1,457 have moved into new housing
  • 367 refused to move.

NOTE: Approximately 120,000 trailers were deployed to the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita.

 

Since the July 2007 congressional hearing, FEMA says:

  • 11,722 trailers in use in Mississippi
  • 40,703 trailers in use in Louisiana
  • 52,425 still in use

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has started testing FEMA trailers for formaldehyde levels after residents complained about respiratory illnesses, nosebleeds and headaches.

Trailer residents worry the health problems are linked to high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. Tens of thousands are still living in the trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi, more than two years after Hurricane Katrina wiped out their homes.

They blame FEMA for the problems.

In the Renaissance Village trailer park just north of Baton Rouge, La., hundreds of white FEMA trailers sit side-by-side along gravel roads. It's rainy, chilly and desolate here. A bright spot is the blue mobile medical unit that visits twice a week to take care of children and young mothers.

LaTonya London has brought in her 3-year-old son, Darrell, for a checkup. One reason she came is because she's worried about the formaldehyde level in trailers. "I'm concerned because my kids are getting sick over that stuff," she says.

London and others say their children are having problems they had not seen until they started living in FEMA trailers. Two of her boys and her daughter were treated for rashes. Her 1-year-old son was put on breathing treatments. She says she hasn't been sick.

Headaches, Skin Rashes and Nosebleeds

Formaldehyde is a widely used chemical found in plastics, insulation and furniture. It's also used in disinfectants, adhesive materials and in construction, including the construction of travel trailers. It is a known carcinogen.

Dr. Heidi Sinclair is the medical director for the Baton Rouge Children's Health Project. She has treated many of the children who live in Renaissance Village trailer park for chronic sinus infections, nosebleeds, skin rashes, headaches and aggravated asthma symptoms.

"I've seen more children with headaches, "she says. "Children with headaches are not that common." Sinclair has seen a lot of children with nosebleeds, too.

She says the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (irritated and inflamed nasal passages) and dermatitis (skin rashes) are especially tough to control.

There's no scientific proof that formaldehyde has caused the symptoms that Dr. Sinclair is seeing. But she says increased levels of the chemical are most likely contributing to many of these illnesses.

Testing Levels

Since the spring of 2006, the Sierra Club documented complaints about formaldehyde levels in trailers. Last year, the EPA tested 96 unoccupied units for formaldehyde and had the CDC evaluate the results.

But none of the information came out until a federal hearing was conducted by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last July. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) the committee chairman, grilled FEMA Director David Paulison.

"Did you test any other occupied trailers?" Waxman asked Paulison.

"We did not test occupied trailers," Paulson replied. "We went along with the advice that we received from EPA and CDC that if we ventilated the trailers that would reduce the formaldehyde issue."

Waxman pressed on, asking Paulison if FEMA tested to see whether ventilating the trailers in fact reduced formaldehyde levels. Paulison said that it did reduce levels in the empty trailers.

But Waxman interrupted the response, repeating that FEMA tests were conducted only on empty trailers with blowing fans, open windows and constant air conditioning.

Waxman asked Paulison again, "What about where people were living?"

Memos from FEMA's attorneys and senior staff show the agency blocked the testing of occupied trailers.

"Once you get results ... the clock is running on our duty to respond to them," according to the memos.

In the FEMA testing of closed-up trailers, formaldehyde levels averaged 1.04 parts per million. That's significantly higher than maximum workplace levels recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and three times higher than OSHA's recommendation for exposure during an 8-hour work day. Residents in this case are exposed to the conditions 24-hours a day.

Formaldehyde levels did drop when trailers had their windows open or air-conditioning systems turned on, but many say the levels are still too high and pose a risk for residents.

The Huckabees

Lindsay Huckabee is among those who testified about her family's health problems.

"I came home one afternoon and found my daughter. Her hand was over her nose. She was covered in blood," Huckabee said. She testified that it was frightening that she didn't rush to her daughter or think anything was wrong with her child because she has had so many nosebleeds.

Huckabee told the committee, "It is very sad to me that I've gotten to the point where it is a common practice to see my child covered in blood and (for) it to not scare me."

Huckabee lives in Kiln, Miss., with her husband and five children. She says she called FEMA about the health issues but no one from the government responded.

"It made me furious to find out the whole time we were sick and trying to figure out what was wrong with us, FEMA knew," Huckabee says. "They knew they had a formaldehyde problem."

FEMA would not do an interview on this issue. A spokesman says the agency is updating its policy. In the congressional hearing, Paulison did say that FEMA now recognizes the issue.

Since the hearing, FEMA says about 4,000 people have either requested or been offered alternative housing due to formaldehyde concerns. Nearly 1,500 of those have moved into new housing.

Meanwhile, the CDC has just started collecting data in trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana for a new study. Howard Frumkin, director of the environmental health centers at CDC, said formaldehyde does rise to very worrisome levels among mobile homes that are closed up, especially when they are warm.

"Simple interventions, like air conditioning and opening the windows can bring the formaldehyde levels down," Frumkin says, "But not down far as we would have liked."

In Mississippi, Lindsay Huckabee still lives in a FEMA trailer with her family. All of her children are still sick with respiratory problems, including asthma. Her husband has had chronic sinus infections.

Huckabee says she spends $400 to $500 a month on medical bills. She would like to move out, but even though both she and her husband have jobs, it has been difficult to find a place to live.

Huckabee says she would have to pay at least $1,500 to $1,900 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. "We've just been kind of biding our time trying to figure out where to go," she said.

The cost of apartments and rental homes along the Gulf Coast has more than doubled since the hurricane. "I don't want to get into something that we can't afford and then not have anyplace to go," she said.

FEMA has offered Huckabee 30 days in a motel. She's afraid to take them up on it. If she can't find a home during that time, she worries she would have nowhere to move and no trailer to come back to.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.