National News

Easley Concerned About Trailer Safety

Posted February 14, 2008

— Gov. Mike Easley on Thursday called for assurances from manufacturers that North Carolina residents living in trailers aren't exposed to toxic fumes.

The move was in response to a finding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the air in some temporary trailers being used by Hurricane Katrina victims has high levels of formaldehyde.

The CDC tested the air in 519 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi and determined the formaldehyde levels were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

In a letter to Brad Lovin, executive director of the North Carolina Manufactured Home Institute, Easley asked the industry to ensure that no one buying mobile homes in North Carolina is exposed to high levels of formaldehyde.

"I am sure you agree that no one, whether living in temporary government-issued housing or in a manufactured home purchased by private individuals, should be subjected to health threats in their homes due to high levels of toxic fumes from materials used to build these homes," Easley wrote in the letter.

The governor wanted details on how much formaldehyde is used in manufactured housing, who is buying and selling such homes and how the industry plans to reduce the levels of toxic fumes.

Easley also said he plans to ask school districts to test for formaldehyde fumes in classroom trailers.

Because of the CDC's findings, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would step up efforts to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of more than 35,000 trailers.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said at a news conference they hope to get people out of the trailers before the warm summer months, when heat and a lack of ventilation in the trailers could make formaldehyde accumulations worse.

"The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out," Paulison said.

Gerberding said that although formaldehyde levels were low in some trailers, others were high enough to cause breathing problems for children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory problems.

About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, Gerberding said.

Trailer occupants will be moved to apartments or hotels. If necessary sturdier mobile homes - pre-tested for formaldehyde - will be used, he said.

Even as it began a rush to move out thousands of victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA said it is sticking with plans to distribute mobile homes to victims of recent tornadoes. Thousands of FEMA trailers were intended for hurricane victims but have sat vacant at the Hope, Arkansas, airport.

Paulison said workers would air out mobile homes at Hope for up to two weeks and later test them. "We're not going to give somebody a mobile home that tested high for formaldehyde," he said.

In Louisiana, there are 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers. In Mississippi, there are 10,362, according to FEMA figures. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one time, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.

Paulison also said FEMA will never again use travel trailers to house disaster victims but may continue to use larger, better constructed mobile homes.

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.

The CDC said the levels of formaldehyde varied widely, and that some trailers had low levels. Others, however, had levels high enough to cause burning eyes and breathing problems for people who have asthma or sensitivity to air pollutants, said Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards.

"Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am," Lynette Hooks, 48, said as she sat in her trailer near her still-damaged house in New Orleans. "They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems."

A former nursing assistant now on disability, she has been living in a cramped FEMA trailer next to her flood-ravaged house since October 2006, sharing it with her teenage son, 21-year-old daughter and the daughter's 9-month-old son.

Her tiny trailer is falling apart. Bed frames have dislodged from the superstructure and the door barely opens. Roaches climbed up a nearby wall as she spoke.

Hooks said that since she began living in the trailer, she has experienced headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.

Roger Sheldon, 60, said in a telephone interview from Pascagoula, Miss., that he has noticed some symptoms, including eye irritation, since moving into the FEMA trailer placed on his property in Pascagoula, one of several Mississippi coast cities slammed by Katrina.

"It seems like I have had more respiratory problems since I have been in the trailer," he said Thursday. But he was not ready to blame formaldehyde for his problems. "You know you can walk into any new trailer, or house for that matter, and things like new carpet can cause irritation."

Sheldon said he was concerned with findings of toxic levels of formaldehyde fumes in the trailers but not overly alarmed.

"To be honest, I'm thankful to the government. I don't like the trailer but it beats the alternative for now."

With housing still in short supply - 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, the pace of rebuilding has been slow, and rents are out of reach for many - Ernest Penns said he, too, was grateful for his trailer.

"I got nowhere else to go," said Penns, whose nearby home in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward was still a shambles.


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  • enigma1469 Feb 15, 2008

    Why move out when its free and then to complain about it. Put them on the streets. Stop wasting my money.

  • buzzcub Feb 15, 2008

    I'm surprised there are still that many people living in these temporary trailers. If it's longer than a year, then it is no longer temporary living, is it? They were built for weekend camping and manufactured cheaply with plastics,fabrics, and chemicals. Naturally, there will be fumes building especially with prolonged human habitation.

    If any of them are due payment by insurance companies, they need to pay up so these folks can move out and on with their lives. But, rebuilding below sea level in that area is not a good idea and a waste of money. It would be more useful to the community as park areas.

  • djofraleigh Feb 14, 2008

    This is opening pandora's box, for all new homes with hardwood floors, carpet, etc. are emitting gasses for years. This will be a trail lawyers' delight...sue, sue, sue. Oh yeah, you can't use tents either, or motel rooms left closed up for a time.

  • claudnc Feb 14, 2008

    No, the big question is - are people being put in harms way when they are purchasing mobile homes or if they were placed in a mobile home on a temporary bases.. I am sure the manufactures are well aware of the potential for these trailers to be harmful. There are thousands upon thousands of folks living in these potential fatal homes. I guess this is not a big deal because of the whole perception of folks living in a trailer. Actually when I was looking at purchasing a home I saw some very nice modular and double wide mobile homes and they were very nice. Didnt purchase one because of the land factor.

  • beachboater Feb 14, 2008

    I don't think the FEMA trailers are any different than any others. My wife and I bought a mobil home 30 years ago. When we were looking, some of the new ones smelled so strong with formaldahyde that it made your eyes burn and water and burned your nose. It must be something in the manufatcuring process that hasn't changed over the years.

    I agree with the other comments. What is temporary. And for that matter, why are we spending billions in taxpayer dollars to rebuild a city 10 feed below sea level? In this area, a lot of people were bought out because the river got them with Hurricane Floyd, and we're 80 feet ABOVE sea level.

  • Adelinthe Feb 14, 2008

    "Why haven't they already moved out on their own? How long are they planing on staying in those things?"

    To what? Do you realize how much regular housing was simply washed away during and after Katrina? How much had to be demolished? How many people are still awaiting insurance checks to rebuild?

    And those who lived in rentals may never see their homes rebuilt or ones rebuilt in their place.

    Praying for all put in harm's way by this chemical in their homes. Praying they disallow it in future manufactured housing - even for temporary use.

    God bless.

    Rev. RB

  • Rodney F Feb 14, 2008

    how long is "temporary"

  • Bob Sidel Feb 14, 2008

    I lived in a trailer once, it was for 3 days on a camping trip.

  • Sandollar Feb 14, 2008

    Is this a case of trailer manufacturers taking the government for a ride? Are there guidelines/specifications on the government contracts? Is this fraud on the government?

  • 68_polara Feb 14, 2008

    Why haven't they already moved out on their own? How long are they planing on staying in those things?