NEW ORLEANS (AP) — After downplaying the risks for months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it will rush to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of roughly 35,000 government-issued trailers because tests found dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency hopes to get everyone out and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen the problem inside the trailers.
"The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fumes from 519 tested trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.
The findings stirred worry and anger across the Gulf Coast, where FEMA is already a dirty word and housing has been scarce since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005.
"Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am. They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems," said Lynette Hooks, 48. She said that since she began living in her trailer outside her damaged New Orleans home in October 2006, she has suffered headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.
The CDC findings could also have disturbing implications for the safety of other trailers and mobile homes across the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Capitol Hill on Thursday. But the CDC study did not look beyond the FEMA housing.
Paulison vowed that the agency will never again use the flimsy, cramped travel trailers to shelter victims of disasters. Mobile homes are generally roomier than trailers and considered less susceptible to buildups of fumes.
FEMA will press ahead with plans to supply leftover, never-used mobile homes from the twin disasters to victims of last week’s tornadoes in the South, Paulison said. But the mobile homes will be opened up, aired out and tested first, he said.
The formaldehyde levels in some trailers were found to be high enough to cause breathing problems in children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory trouble, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said. About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, she said.
Gerberding said the tests could not draw a direct link between formaldehyde levels and the wide range of ailments reported by trailer occupants. But the CDC urged people to move out as quickly as possible.
As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.
But as recently as last spring, a FEMA spokesman said the agency said no reason to question the safety of its trailers. Just last month, congressional investigators accused FEMA of suppressing and manipulating scientific research to play down the danger — an accusation the agency denied.
"I don’t understand why FEMA bought trailers in the first place that were dangerous," said Henry Alexander, 60, who has been living in a trailer since February 2006. "You would hope they would test them for formaldehyde before. I’m very angry that another agency had to step forward and say they were a health risk."
Chertoff said at a Senate committee hearing that the government has trying since last summer to prod people to move out of the trailers, but it has been difficult to get them to do so because the housing shortage means they might have to move far away, and because they are being allowed to live in the trailers rent-free.
Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes, while Mississippi has 10,362, according to FEMA. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one point, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.
Paulison had no estimate of how much it would cost to put people in hotels, apartments and other housing.
Formaldehyde has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fumes can cause burning of the eyes and nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and tightness in the chest.
The CDC examined only FEMA housing and cannot draw any conclusions about the safety of prefab homes elsewhere, Gerberding said. But "I think we’re going to learn a lot more in the next year or two," she said after a news conference at FEMA offices in New Orleans.
"It seems like I have had more respiratory problems since I have been in the trailer," Roger Sheldon, 60, said in Pascagoula, Miss. But he was not ready to blame formaldehyde "You know you can walk into any new trailer, or house for that matter, and things like new carpet can cause irritation."
"To be honest, I’m thankful to the government," he added. "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 of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward said he, too, was grateful for his trailer: "I got nowhere else to go."