NEW ORLEANS – 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.
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.