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Children in Toxic FEMA Trailers Could Suffer for Years

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The children who lived in toxic Katrina trailers could face years of health problems, including the specter of cancer. Thousands of the trailers were distributed to Hurricane Katrina victims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA), and even now, thousands still live in them.  But the FEMA trailers emit toxic formaldehyde fumes, and it is not known how great the public health crises posed by exposure to the chemical could become.

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.  By 2006, FEMA was getting reports of dangerous levels of formaldehyde in its trailers, but ignored them, until public outcry forced the agency to act.

Late last year, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally conducted air quality tests of 519 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 77ppb (parts per billions), 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.There is no way to measure formaldehyde levels in the blood, so there is no way to know how many children are at risk. Experts say it generally takes 10-15 years after exposure for formaldehyde-related cancers to develop. However, thousands of kids who lived in the toxic FEMA trailers are already showing signs of asthma and respiratory illnesses that could be tied to formaldehyde exposure.

Earlier this month, the CDC released a study based on a review of medical charts and interviews with 144 Mississippi children from August 2004 to August 2007. Two-thirds of the children lived in FEMA housing. While the study said the total number of medical visits to the five facilities by the children during the year before Katrina — 411 — was about the same as the number during the second year after the storm, visits for bronchitis-like symptoms increased from 22 percent to 31 percent. However, even the CDC admitted the conclusions that could be drawn from such a small study were limited, especially because of the special problems presented by Katrina’s aftermath.

The CDC is slated to start a bigger, five-year study next year that will up to 5,000 children in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, and CDC officials said it should begin next year. However, the five year window of that study is too short to track many of the cancers that could be associated with formaldehyde in the toxic trailers.

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