ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
After more than a year and thousands of health complaints, the Centers for Disease Control is now testing FEMA trailers for formaldehyde. Tens of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi still live in the trailers more than two years after Hurricane Katrina. And several thousand of them said that they've experienced respiratory illnesses, nosebleeds and headaches. They blamed FEMA for high levels of formaldehyde.
Here's NPR's Kathy Lohr.
KATHY LOHR: Hundreds of white FEMA trailers sit side by side along gravel roads in the Renaissance Village trailer park just north of Baton Rouge. 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 check up. One reason she came is because she's worried about the formaldehyde level in trailers.
Ms. LATONYA LONDON (Mother): Oh, yeah. I'm concerned because my kids are getting sick over there. So…
LOHR: London and others here say their children are having problems they had not seen until they started living in FEMA trailers.
Ms. LONDON: Doctor Sinclair has treated my - all my two boys and my daughter for rashes that they broke out because of the formaldehyde. My son - I have a 1-year-old baby, and he ought to get on the breathing treatment. Me, myself, I'm not. I guess I have a good immune system because I ain't getting sick yet.
LOHR: Formaldehyde is a widely used chemical found in plastic, insulation and furniture. It's also used in disinfectants, adhesive materials and in constructions, including the construction of travel trailers. It's a known carcinogen.
Dr. HEIDI SINCLAIR (Medical Director; Baton Rouge Children's Health Project): Very good. Good job. Okay. Can you look up at the ceiling for me? I'm just going to look in your nose.
LOHR: Medical director for the Baton Rouge Children's Health Project, Dr. Heidi Sinclair, examines one of the children who live in the trailer park. She's treated many of the kids for chronic sinus infections, nosebleeds, skin rashes, headaches and aggravated asthma symptoms.
Dr. SINCLAIR: I've seen more children with headaches. Children with headaches is not that common. And nosebleeds - and children who are having symptoms of allergic - seems like allergic rhinitis or atopic dermatitis. It seems like it's been harder to control.
LOHR: There's no scientific proof that formaldehyde has caused the symptoms that Dr. Sinclair is seeing. But she says increase levels of the chemical are most likely contributing to many of these illnesses. Since the spring of 2006, the Sierra Club has 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 in Washington last July.
Committee chair, Representative Henry Waxman, grilled FEMA director David Paulison.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat; California): Did you test any other occupied trailers?
Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Director; Federal Emergency Management Agency): We did not test occupied trailers.
Rep. WAXMAN: So you tested…
Mr. PAULISON: We went along with the advice that we received from…
Rep. WAXMAN: From?
Mr. PAULISON: …EPA.
Rep. WAXMAN: And your lawyers?
Mr. PAULISON: And, no, sir. And CDC - if I can finish my sentence please - and CDC that we ventilated the trailers that will reduce the formaldehyde issue. My concern is…
Rep. WAXMAN: Would you test to see whether it did reduce the formaldehyde levels?
Mr. PAULISON: It did in our testing - on the empty trailers.
Rep. WAXMAN: On the empty trailers, where the fan was going, where the windows were open, where the air conditioning was running 24 hours a day? What about where people were living?
LOHR: Memos from FEMA's attorneys and senior staff showed they blocked the testing of occupied trailers saying, quote, "once you get the results, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them." 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 osseous recommendation for exposure during an eight-hour workday.
But 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.
Lindsay Huckabee is among those who testified about her family's health problems.
Ms. LINDSAY HUCKABEE (Mother): We came home one afternoon and found my daughter, her hand was over her nose. She's covered in blood - her hand, her arms, her shirt. The most frightening thing later when I thought about it was I didn't rush to her, not for a second did I think that there's anything wrong with my kid other than the nosebleed. And it is very sad to me because I've gotten to the point where it is a common practice to see my child covered in blood and it's not scared me.
LOHR: Huckabee lives in Kiln, Mississippi, with her husband and five children. She says she call FEMA about the health issues, but no one from the government responded.
Ms. HUCKABEE: It made me furious to find out that the whole time we were sick and trying to figure out what was wrong with us, FEMA knew. They knew they had a formaldehyde problem.
LOHR: FEMA would not do an interview on this issue. A spokesman says the agency is updating its policy. In the congressional hearing, Director Paulison did say that FEMA now recognizes it has an 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 is director of the environmental health centers at the agency.
Mr. HOWARD FRUMKIN (Director, Environmental Health Center, Centers for Disease Control): Formaldehyde does rise to very worrisome levels among mobile homes that are closed up, especially when they're warm. Simple interventions, like air conditioning and opening the windows can bring the formaldehyde levels down, but not down far as we would have liked.
Ms. HUCKABEE: Oh, you got to be faster than that. Okay, get back this way.
LOHR: Lindsay Huckabee plays soccer with her two younger sons outside the FEMA trailer, where the family still lives in Mississippi. All of her children are still sick with respiratory problems, including asthma. Her husband has had chronic sinus infections. She says she spends 400 to $500 a month on medical bills. Huckabee would like to move out, but even though both she and her husband have jobs, it's been difficult to find a place to live.
Ms. HUCKABEE: For a family my size, we're looking at least 15 to $1,900 a month to get into even a three bedroom apartment. We've just been, kind of, biding our time trying to figure out where to go. We've checked into rental options, and everything's so high right now, I don't want to get into something that we can't afford and then not have any place to go.
LOHR: 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 says she'd have nowhere to move and no trailer to come back to.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can get more information on formaldehyde levels and also read some of the congressional testimony at NPR.org.