FEMA Trailer Supplier Reacts to Health Threat

At the Ohio factory that made "Emergency Living Units" for Hurricane Katrina survivors, workers and company officials talk about dealing with formaldehyde. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want all residents of FEMA-issued trailers to move out, citing fear of toxic fumes.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

And now to the trailer factory. I started looking into this story myself a few weeks back, and I couldn't quite figure out how the chemical was used. How does formaldehyde get inside the trailers? I could imagine a small town, a plant that builds recreational vehicles. Does formaldehyde come in by tanker car on the train?

(Soundbite of train)

ADAMS: Well, I was completely wrong. The train in this case is Edgerton, Ohio. It's simply a freight train passing through. The factory in this case is right by the tracks. The company is called Fleetwood. Donald Cochran, who runs the place, just laughed when I told him what I thought.

Mr. DONALD COCHRAN (Manager, Fleetwoon Enterprise, Inc.): Right. I think people, you know, you can draw that picture when you hear something like toxic trailers, that - you know, that there is, you know, basin of formaldehyde in every unit, and that's just simply not the fact.

ADAMS: When I started calling up RV companies asking to see how the units are put together, I would say I was a reporter with NPR. Most people thought that was okay - until their lawyers heard about it. There is indeed a class action lawsuit in the works filed by people who've lived in the FEMA trailers. Many companies are named. So most people said no. But Fleetwood, one of the largest companies based in California, said yes, come and visit our plant in Edgerton on the Ohio border with Indiana.

(Soundbite of factory)

ADAMS: Inside the plant, it's percussive. The work is like a dance accompanied by the bounce of the staple guns. Workers are attaching the wood floor to the steel chassis. Everyone in the plant seems to move lightly and quickly.

Mr. ROD COVER (Production Team Manager, Fleetwood Enterprise, Inc.): If this unit was to come in to chassis this morning, by the end of the day it would be going out the door.

ADAMS: The production team manager is Rod Cover. He'll watch the RVs move through the plant, pausing at different work station

Mr. COVER: We actually build a ceiling on the table and then we stand it up and then we have our electrical harness that goes into the ceiling, which will take care of your speakers, lights, AC...

ADAMS: What is that woman doing up there?

Mr. COVER: She's actually an electrician. She'd be drilling her holes down through the ceiling so we can run her wires down for switches.

ADAMS: Along the way, cabinets are installed, carpet laid, the unit gains a bathroom, a kitchen. Soon it resembles what it's going to be: a Fleetwood Prowler. The decals have a tiger theme with slashing stripes.

Carla Cox(ph) has 12 years experience (unintelligible)

Ms. CARLA COX: Spring and fall are my best times of the year. You can either get too much humidity and the heat - we're getting to a warmer, humid weather, and as it's going to be playing games with me.

ADAMS: Do you ever see one of these going down the highway and know that you built it?

Ms. COX: Yeah, I love it. I love it. If it's in this area, I pretty much know that I probably applied it, and that's kind of a neat feeling.

Mr. COVER: Yeah, this is our finish department. We install the mattress and all the furniture, cushions, and we also do a gas and water test here.

ADAMS: With team manager Rod Cover, we reached the end of the assembly line. A tractor will take the RV outside for pickup by the dealer. They finish about 11 trailers a day here, with 270 employees who are happy for the jobs. When Katrina came along, this small plant in northwestern Ohio had been shut down for a year and a half.

(Soundbite of chatter)

Unidentified Man: Hi, Michele.

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

ADAMS: We had asked Fleetwood for a chance to talk with some of their workers. All were long-time employees. When the FEMA contract came, Michael Wright(ph) got back in early.

Mr. MICHAEL WRIGHT: I thought it was pretty neat when they said we're building FEMAs, but I can't go down there and help them build houses, but I could help build the trailers here.

ADAMS: They built as quickly as they could 351 travel trailers. Joannie Heard(ph), a Fleetwood supervisor, said it was the same trailer they always made.

Ms. JOANNIE HEARD (Supervisor): Nothing changed. We used the same products and everything in them, except there was just a little fewer amenities, you know, like clocks and maybe coffeemakers or something like that. But they were made exactly the way we make them now.

ADAMS: The units were towed off to the Gulf Coast, families were waiting there. Fleetwood people were proud until the formaldehyde news started coming back.

Mr. MATHEW HILLIARD(ph): We did some trailers for Hurricane Charley a few years back too, and there was no problem then. And I'm pretty sure that the trailers we build that they sell, I don't think there's any complaints there either. I was really shocked when I first heard about it.

ADAMS: That is Mathew Hilliard. The usual daily safety concern at Fleetwood is the chance of shooting a staple into a finger. Formaldehyde has not been an issue. Again, Joannie Hurt.

Ms. HURT: I was aware of it because I work in a department where we put a sticker on the mirror that says something about formaldehyde. But our levels are very low here, and I've never been affected by it.

ADAMS: Shannon Marquis(ph), another veteran employee, agrees with Joannie Hurt.

Ms. SHANNON MARQUIS (Employee, Fleetwood RV): Well, I work with is personally, every day. I cut it. So I've inhaled the dust particles and I've never had a problem in 14 years.

ADAMS: Have you ever been tested?

Ms. MARQUIS: No. But I've never been sick, either.

ADAMS: Mm-hmm. Do you wear a mask?

Ms. MARQUIS: No, I don't. And none of my associates wore a mask. None of them are sick - never appeared to be sick. Never complained.

ADAMS: Shannon Marquis had a closing thought the day I visited the Fleetwood RV plant in Ohio. It's possible she speaks for many of her co-workers. It's about the people who have lived in the trailers. No one's said thank you.

Ms. MARQUIS: 'Cause all we hear is all the negative feedback. We've never heard anything that says, you know, thanks Fleetwood, or thanks whoever. These are great units. Thanks for giving us homes. But just as a person, a caring person, I'd like to hear a thank you are something that they appreciated what we've done.

ADAMS: Workers at the Fleetwood plant in Edgerton, Ohio. To go back to the original question, who does the formaldehyde get in the trailers? Mostly, it's already in the particle board and plywood used in making the cabinets and countertops.

The attorney for Fleetwood, Don Lee, sends us this note: "Yes, formaldehyde can be an irritant, although science today still confirms that levels in our Fleetwood units are so low, it is below the level of irritation by even the hypersensitive. Fleetwood has always done everything within its power to ensure its homes and RVs are safe, healthy and pleasant." End quote.

Fleetwood says it has moved quickly in the past to adopt the lowest emitting wood products, and will continue to do so. And there is a new industry-wide standard coming next year. It began in California, and promises to reduce formaldehyde levels by about 50 percent.

As we mentioned, June 1st is the day FEMA wants everybody out of the group trailer sites along the Gulf Coast. FEMA considers the trailers not safe for long-term habitation. All the group sites in Mississippi are now closed. In Louisiana, six will stay open until new housing can be found for 450 families.

Sunday, June 1st is also the first day of the new hurricane season.

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