FEMA Warns Workers Not to Enter Stored Trailers
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.
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.
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