Formaldehyde News Not News in FEMA Parks

Some who've been living in FEMA trailers since hurricanes Katrina and Rita say they're not surprised at recent government findings about high levels of formaldehyde. They've been saying they feel the effects all along.

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DAVID FOLKENFLIK, host:

Well, it looks like may Gulf coast survivors torn from their homes by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina may be picking up and moving again after new information surfaces from a couple of government agencies last week. The Centers for Disease Control announced that formaldehyde levels in the sample of some 500 tested FEMA trailers averaged five times the levels in new housing. Some of the homes were toxic enough to make even a healthy adults sick. FEMA announced it will expedite the relocation of the hurricane survivors living out of some 38,000 trailers. But the official findings about the toxic trailers is hardly news to some residence who have been experiencing symptoms everyday. Journalist Amanda Spake has talked to trailer residents who say they've been feeling the formaldehyde since they moved in to their trailers.

Amanda joins us on the line right now. Hi, Amanda.

Ms. AMANDA SPAKE (Journalist): Hi, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Tell us, how long has this problem with formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers been going on?

Ms. SPAKE: I think it's been going on pretty much since people moved in to the trailers. I think most people who've heard about it, started hearing about it in 2005. I talked to a guy who worked at one time for Hancock County and then worked for FEMA, and he was telling people within FEMA that people were having, in the trailers, were having problems as early as 2005.

FOLKENFLIK: That long ago.

Ms. SPAKE: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: So, you've talking to, you know, residents there in some of those…

Ms. SPAKE: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: …38,000 trailers. What have you seen? How many folks have you seen affected by this?

Ms. SPAKE: Well, because I've been reporting on this issue since early 2006, I've talked to a lot of people with symptoms. I've also talked to a few people, occasionally, who say they were not terribly bothered by it, but other people that they had come over to their house or a relative or certainly an elderly person was bothered by it. So I think it's basically a condition of most of the trailers and…

FOLKENFLIK: Sort of everyday, just it is.

Ms. SPAKE: Yeah, everyday. And some people are extremely affected and others are not. Certainly, elderly people, young children, anyone with a respiratory condition such as asthma, hay fever, allergies - these people are much more severely affected by it.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I want to walk through some of the effect. Some of the effected of formaldehyde exposure includes burning eyes, nose bleeds, breathing difficulties and headaches. But you've written a fair amount about more serious health concerns related t it. Tell us about those.

Ms. SPAKE: Well, I think that there are certainly more serious possibilities the longer people stay in those living conditions. I also have interviewed family members of people who died in the trailers, often of respiratory infection, sometime complications involved with chronic illness. A woman who had cancer - had uterine cancer lived in the trailer for two years and developed lung cancer.

FOLKENFLIK: And was there any clarity on links to the formaldehyde?

Ms. SPAKE: No. There's not - it's not any clarity on links. I think over time -I was very happy to see that the CDC is going to start a registry, if they can find them, of people who've been living in the trailers and to follow their health. I think you're looking at a long term project, in the neighborhood of 20 years.

FOLKENFLIK: So FEMA says it's going to expedite the relocation.

Ms. SPAKE: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: It's going to speed this up for - put them in temporarily housing units. And they're, as you said, the elderly and, you know, household with young kids are most at concern. Where are these people going to go?

Ms. SPAKE: No one knows. No one know where these kids are going to go. And the kids and the people - and the elderly people, because certainly elderly people, people on fixed incomes, they simply don't have the money to rent given the prices post-Katrina and post-Rita. I think that we're seeing a situation now where some people are feeling very desperate.

I was kind of annoyed that the administrator of FEMA, David Paulison, said some people didn't want to leave their trailers. Well, I think that's true. I've talked to a number of people who would love to leave their trailers. But when they asked FEMA about rental assistance or staying in a hotel or motel, FEMA tells them, well, we can help you for the first month, and after that, you may be on your own. Well for somebody who's living on a $1,000 a month social security, they can't face the possibility of a big hotel bill after a month. So then they stay in the trailer.

FOLKENFLIK: So when you say that there are a lot of people that are willing under these conditions, how willing are they to move?

Ms. SPAKE: Well, I think the conditions have been the same - in fact, they probably were worse two years ago, and that's why so many people had such extreme symptoms right off the bat because formaldehyde levels, we hope, will dissipate over time. So two years ago, they were worse than they are now. If you see where they are now, as you pointed out they're five times higher than the average new house and almost 10 times higher than the sort of chronic yardstick, the yard stick for chronic exposure that was set by one of the agencies in CDC. So…

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. So, like, if I've got a family, they got to send me somewhere else and they say, well, we're going to help you. You know, briefly tick o9ff what kind of help that means.

Ms. SPAKE: Well, I think that what that means is what's being offered at this point is relocation expenses, certainly initial help renting the apartment in terms of a rent subsidy. But what every resident has been told is that they have to have their own money for the security deposit and possibly the first month's rent.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure.

Ms. SPAKE: And possibly rent after a month or two. And some people looking at rents of - that are at least 50 percent higher in many cases. And in Mississippi, as I'm sure you'll probably hear, there simply are very few rentals. They just haven't been built. They haven't been rebuilt.

FOLKENFLIK: SO FEMA says, look, it's wise for people to be relocated before the hot weather arrives in the summer.

Ms. SPAKE: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, nice for them to say. I guess there are about 800 to 1,000 households can be relocated a week. So how realistic is this?

Ms. SPAKE: Well, I - there was a calculation done by a member of Congress that showed that 800 families a week, even if there are places could be found for them, it would take 47 weeks to relocate them, almost a year. So I don't think they're going to be relocated by summer.

FOLKENFLIK: So an investigation by Congress into math, which was a good thing there.

Ms. SPAKE: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: So how hopeful are you for, you know, these people's health and situation to be improved?

Ms. SPAKE: Well, I think that if people are able to get out of the trailers, their health may improve. But the long term effect of formaldehyde on these peoples' heath is really not know. As the CDC says, we know very little about the long term impact of low levels of formaldehyde. We do know that in some people, it causes cancer.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it sounds like something we'll keep eye on. Amanda Spake is a reporter and media fellow with the Open Society Institute, a not-for-profit group supporting research, philanthropy and advocacy for human rights. Thanks, Amanda.

Ms. SPAKE: Thanks, David.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Well you know, we've been following the story for a while, David. And months ago, we spoke to Hurricane Katrina survivor Lindsey Huckabee, who was living in a FEMA trailer with her husband and five kids. Now this is a trailer with one bathroom, four kitchen cabinets and a trailer with high levels of formaldehyde, and not in the insulation or in the wood as a preservative. She is one of the 10,362 people in Mississippi in this situation. That number is according to FEMA.

But back in October, she told us here on the BPP, she just couldn't see staying there long term.

Ms. LINDSEY HUCKABEE: We do have one of the ones with the formaldehyde and this is actually our second trailer FEMA ha s given with the high levels of formaldehyde. We are in the process - we started about six months after the hurricane trying to buy some property. So once we get enough of that paid off to get the deed, then we will hopefully be moving out there.

STEWART: In light of the recent news, we want to check back with Lindsey Huckabee.

Hi, Lindsey.

Ms. HUCKABEE: Hi, good morning.

STEWART: Good morning. So where are you living right now?

Ms. HUCKABEE: We're still in our FEMA trailer, unfortunately.

STEWART: And where about is that?

Ms. HUCKABEE: In Kiln, Mississippi.

STEWART: Did it work out for you to be able to purchase any land? Were you able to go forward that way?

Ms. HUCKABEE: We are. We weren't able to pay as much as quickly as we thought we were. So it set us back further, you know, later than we anticipated getting out of out trailer. But hopefully in the next couple of months, we'll be able to get out of here.

STEWART: All, right. So we'll keep out fingers crossed for you. Tell me a little bit how your family's doing. Have you had any more health issues that you believe are related to formaldehyde?

Ms. HUCKABEE: Yes. It's pretty much continues. I've actually one kid home from school today because she was up all night coughing and needed several breathing treatments.

I just want to say one thing, though. They keep saying before summer gets here. But whenever you run the heat in the winter, it has the same effect as the summer heat does on the trailer because it heats up all those boards and the glue under the flooring and everything. And that's what our problem is right now. Whenever it's nice enough outside to where we don't have to runt the heat or the air, then we don't have problems. But as soon as we have to turn that heat on, everybody wakes up with a sore throat and feeling congested and yucky. So, it's not just - I mean, it's any form of heat that heats formaldehyde, not just the, you know, outside temperature.

STEWART: So who's that we hear n the background?

Ms. HUCKABEE: That is Michael sitting in my lap.

STEWART: All right. Hi, Michael. Good morning. Hey, in your congressional testimony to congress in the summer of '07, you said the only way that you really knew about the formaldehyde levels in your house was because your kids were getting symptoms and you mentioned that your daughter, at one point, has to take steroids for asthma. Is she still on them?

Ms. HUCKABEE: Oh, yes. She's on a daily steroid, and then she and Michael, my two-year-old, had been on and off of a much stronger steroid on average of once a month since we've been in the trailer.

STEWART: Now at what point, I want to walk back a little bit for folks who maybe didn't hear our first interview with you. When did you realize that all these respiratory illnesses with your children were more than just kids being sick and being - feeling ill?

Ms. HUCKABEE: Well, I have a feeling because I couldn't, I mean, my kids were not sick before we've gotten here. We saw the pediatrician for well child checks, and that was about it. And almost immediately after getting in, we all had colds constantly, and, you know, it was attributed to, you know, things being mixed up from the air post-Katrina. But it was not until April of '07 when my pedestrian, he had mentioned formaldehyde a couple of times. But, you know, him saying, look, the place you're living in is making your kid sick was not something I was willing to grasp because we didn't have anywhere else to go.

STEWART: Right. It was so much - too much to handle.

Ms. HUCKABEE: Yea, ma'am. And then finally in April, he said, look. He said, I've been working a little bit with the Sierra Club, and, you know, I'm going to send somebody else to touch your trailer. And that's how I found out - I'm not sure how I missed the reporting on the, you know, initially. Whenever they reported on it, it was, I guess very small pieces or something. But I didn't hear anything about it. I'd - but my pediatrician said, look, I'm sending these people to test your trailer.

STEWART: And what did the tests reveal?

Ms. HUCKABEE: The rest revealed that my trailer was well above what the CDC recommended for eight hours of work for healthy adults. That was the only guide line that, at the time, was made, you know, public knowledge. We later found out, you know, that another agency would within the CDC had a much lower level than that, which they considered acceptable for long-term living. And to think that it was estimated that we were about 20 times over the limit that was recommended for healthy living 24 hours a day.

STEWART: So when you hear this report from the CDC, I'm curious how you reacted to it. Was it welcome news for you? Or frustrating news for you? Or were you saying, yeah? So, big news to me.

Ms. HUCKABEE: You know, I kind of had a mixed reaction. Because, of course, you know, I'm thinking, you know, well, duh, we've known this for years now. But it was nice that, you know, somebody working with FEMA finally acknowledged what was going on, because it was very frustrating to hear, you know, the words Paulison's in his mouth over and over again, that, oh, well, this isn't really an issue. You know, the formaldehyde's not dangerous. You know, oh, we don't know what the levels are. It's a very, very small percent of people that are having problems, and they just downplayed the issue so much to where, you know, people who had seen little news pieces and stuff or they'd heard me complain about it, they're like, oh, no. We've heard about that. The formaldehyde's not such a big deal. And it is. And it was just downplayed so much by FEMA. So I was very pleased that they finally admitted what all of us already know.

STEWART: Now for the record, FEMA, on its Web site, says it's taking additional steps to expedite the relocation of residents from manufactured housing to apartments. David talked about this a little bit. They say the priority in relocation will be those occupants expressing health concerns and the most susceptible to heath risk such as the elderly, households with young children, and those with respiratory challenges. Have you experienced any out reach from FEMA, Lindsey?

Ms. HUCKABEE: None at all. We haven't recent any contact at all from FEMA.

STEWART: Lindsey Huckabee, well, we wish you and your family well. I hope Michael has a little bit of a better day at home today. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. We appreciate it.

Ms. HUCKABEE: Thank you.

STEWART: Lindsey Huckabee has been living in a FEMA trailer since December of 2005. She was speaking with us by phone from Kiln, Mississippi.

FOLKENFLIK: That's it for this hour of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT - BRYAN PARK PROJECT.

STEWART: Not so easy is it, buddy?

FOLKENFLIK: Check us out online at npr.org/bryantpark for more on these stories and some serendipity on our blog.

STEWART: This is the BPP from NPR News.

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