FEMA Trailers in Iowa Exceed Formaldehyde Levels Considered Safe

October 23, 2008

A local television station has found high levels of formaldehyde in trailers issued to flood victims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The agency responded Tuesday by questioning the survey’s methodology and attributing high levels of the carcinogen to the lifestyles and habits of trailer occupants.

In a conference call with reporters, three FEMA officials questioned the validity of KGAN-TV’s tests of 20 FEMA trailers in Cedar Rapids used by residents displaced by June flooding. The tests found all 20 trailers exceeded FEMA’s standard for safe levels of formaldehyde, a preservative classified as a carcinogen.

“Only mobile homes and only park models that fell below (the state’s formaldehyde threshold) and validated through that testing were provided to the state of Iowa,” said FEMA Assistant Administrator David Garratt. “FEMA stands behind those tests. We believe that those tests are again the most rigorous and accurate tests of formaldehyde over time in a mobile home or park model.”

In response to the television report, Gov. Chet Culver and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge on Tuesday sent a letter to FEMA Administrator David Paulison that called for retests of the trailers.

Two of Iowa’s U.S. House representatives voiced concern Tuesday about the TV station’s findings.

“It is disturbing and unacceptable that temporary housing provided by the agency responsible for helping people in times of emergency could be making them ill,” Rep. Bruce Braley said in a press release.

Rep. Dave Loebsack echoed his concerns and said in a release that he was told by FEMA officials in Iowa that the trailers would be re-tested.

FEMA on Tuesday, October 21 gave no assurances about a decision to retest the results. Garratt said the agency was meeting to discuss retests, and FEMA did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the matter.

Garratt said FEMA tests the trailers before they’re occupied in order to get a consistent sample. He said actions by residents such as cooking, smoking and storing dry-cleaning products can elevate levels of formaldehyde.

Bill Vogel, FEMA’s coordinating officer for disaster recovery in Iowa, said the agency has called all 20 households that were tested by the television station. He said the agency had so far been able to reach eight of them.

“It’s not unusual that the levels in a mobile home will rise and fall as different variables are introduced into that,” Garratt said. “From FEMA’s perspective, the mobile homes and park models that we have deployed into Iowa are probably the most safe in terms of formaldehyde levels in the state of Iowa.”

Capt. Merritt Lake of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs, was particularly critical of the news station’s methodology. He questioned whether the station accounted for variables in its survey of the trailers, and said the survey didn’t fit government-approved methods for testing for formaldehyde.

“From what I hear, the samples that were taken here in Iowa by the TV station did not use (the nationally recognized methodology), and that leaves some concern,” Lake said. “Several things we wanted to avoid, and that was not accounting for variables. Any decent research study, you must account for the variables that could influence your results.”

The KGAN-TV test found that six of the trailers had levels of formaldehyde that exceeded federal Environmental Protection Agency and American Lung Association limits on formaldehyde, which are more stringent than FEMA’s or the state’s standards.

Lake also said the tests recorded the peak levels of formaldehyde in a 24-hour period, and not the daily average.

“It’s basically a worst-case test as opposed to an average,” Lake said.

The levels in the trailers ranged from 0.023 parts per million to 0.111 parts per million. The FEMA threshold is 0.016 parts per million, and the state accepts 0.04 parts per million.

April Samp, KGAN-TV’s news director, said the story took two months to produce. Samp said the station contracted with Florida-based Advanced Chemical Sensors Inc. to test the samples, and they tested only trailers in which no one was a smoker.

Samp said the testing company issued receptor “badges” that were left in the trailers for 24 hours. The badges were then sealed in a plastic bag and sent to the testing company. Results were e-mailed back to the station.

The conference call between reporters and FEMA officials turned testy when Samp said one of those living in a tested trailer took an infant to the hospital with a nosebleed.

“Some of these people are moms with babies, OK?” Samp said. “What responsibility does FEMA have to make sure that the air quality is safe enough to continue living there, even if (the reading) wasn’t the baseline number.”

Michael Lapinski of the federal disaster assistance office replied that residents unhappy with their trailers could move out.

“You can have a health concern regardless of what the formaldehyde reading is,” Lapinski said. “If you have a health concern and you want to move out of that housing, you’re free to move out of that housing.”

But moving out of that housing could cost the residents, Vogel said. If they’ve already received the maximum of $28,000 in a housing-assistance grant from FEMA, then they’ll be moving out on their own dime.

“We would assist them in finding a rental resource that may be available,” Vogel said. “But the cost of that rental resource is the individual’s responsibility.”

In the letter sent to FEMA, Culver and Judge also requested that the government offer free tests to Iowans using 542 other FEMA trailers in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere in the state. They also asked FEMA to help residents if tests show unsafe levels of the chemical.

After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was criticized for high levels of formaldehyde found in units in New Orleans.

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