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FEMA Moves to Limit Formaldehyde Fumes in Disaster Trailers

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After years of controversy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has set limits for formaldehyde levels in the trailers it distributes to disaster victims. FEMA now says that it will require manufacturers of the trailers it purchases to limit formaldehyde fumes to 16 parts per billion (ppb) — the typical concentration found in most new homes. According to the Associated Press, FEMA will continue to use thousands of previously purchased trailers — except for the smallest “travel trailers.” But each unit will be tested and the results will be provided to states and residents so they can decide whether to accept them

Formaldehyde is an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Unfortunatly, the new formaldehyde limits on FEMA trailers come too late to help those already sickened by the toxic fumes. Thousands of people in Mississippi and Louisiana were given toxic FEMA trailers as temporary housing following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But by 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers along the Gulf Coast that residents of FEMA trailers where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers. The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers. Despite the reports, e-mails uncovered last summer during a congressional investigation into the trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. FEMA’s Office of General Council also advised the agency not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

After the controversy surfaced, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that proper ventilation of the toxic trailers could mitigate formaldehyde problems. But earlier this month, a top toxicologist with the CDC told Congress that his advice to warn trailer residents about the health effects of formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers was ignored, and that the report that contained the ventilation advice downplayed the true danger posed by the FEMA trailers.

Late last year, after a great deal of public outcry, FEMA finally decided to have the CDC conduct air quality tests of 51 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77 ppb , significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions..

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