Two Democratic legislators are pressing the federal government to speed up testing for formaldehyde in travel trailers being used by hurricane evacuees along the Gulf Coast after an environmental group reported finding high rates of the dangerous gas.
The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, reported that Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon and California Rep. Henry Waxman also have demanded an explanation from David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), about what he plans to do for the thousands of evacuees in trailers if formaldehyde levels are found to be as high as detected in a Sierra Club survey this spring.
“In providing housing for evacuees, FEMA has a responsibility to ensure that such housing does not threaten the health and safety of evacuees by exposing them to unnecessary health risks,” the two congressmen wrote Thursday (Aug. 10).
The Sierra Club released a report in May called “Toxic Trailers?” with results of tests it did on travel trailers issued by FEMA in Mississippi. Air quality tests on 31 trailers found that 94% were above the commonly accepted limit for formaldehyde exposure, according to the Sierra Club.
More recent tests in Alabama and Louisiana showed 86% of tested trailers were over the limit. The group tested trailers made by 13 different manufacturers and found high formaldehyde levels in each, possibly emanating from the wood or glue.
“We know this isn’t a statistically significant sample,” said Becky Gillette, co-chairwoman of the Mississippi Sierra Club chapter that began testing after hearing complaints from trailer residents about eye and respiratory problems. “We’re glad they are at least looking at the issue.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formaldehyde is a common chemical used in manufacturing woods products and at levels above 0.1 parts per million can irritate eyes and throats, cause nausea and difficulty breathing. Exposure to high concentrations can cause severe allergic reactions, asthma attacks and possibly cancer, according to the EPA.
The agency said concentrations tend to decline over time but also warned that high temperatures or humidity – such as those along the Gulf Coast in the summer – can increase emissions.
FEMA officials said this week that they have been working with the EPA to begin testing for dangerous formaldehyde levels in travel trailers. It was testing trailers not yet issued to evacuees to avoid possible contamination by occupants or other products brought into the vehicles.
FEMA also said that it will begin distributing brochures to trailer occupants explaining the potential dangers. Among other things, FEMA suggested increasing ventilation, keeping indoor temperatures lower to reduce humidity, and avoiding smoking inside.