CDC Official: Reaction to Formaldehyde in Emergency Trailers Too Slow

March 6, 2008

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should have reacted sooner to concerns about hazardous fumes in government-issued trailers housing thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane victims, a CDC official told a congressional panel.

“In retrospect, we did not engage the formaldehyde issue as aggressively and as early as we should have,” Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC’s National Center For Environmental Health, told a Senate subcommittee on disaster recovery. The committee met in Washington.

The CDC announced last month that tests on hundreds of occupied Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and mobile homes found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes. The results prompted the disaster management agency to step up efforts to move roughly 35,000 families still living in the trailers after the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“This is a little too late,” Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu told Deputy FEMA Administrator Harvey Johnson Jr. during the hearing.

Johnson said the number of occupied trailers on the Gulf Coast, which peaked at more than 143,000 after the hurricanes, has dropped to about 34,000 as FEMA rushes to move people into safer housing.

“FEMA takes very seriously our responsibility to provide for the safety and security of disaster victims,” he said. “Our primary focus is to help those households relocate from temporary housing to more permanent solutions as quickly as possible.”

In mid-2006, FEMA enlisted the CDC’s help in analyzing the results of air-quality tests on unoccupied trailers. But the CDC did not start testing the air quality in occupied FEMA trailers – or study the possible health effects of long-term formaldehyde exposure – until late last year.

Frumkin said the safety of trailers should have been a top priority soon after the hurricanes hit, but that CDC scientists were “extremely engaged” in other environmental health issues.

“Formaldehyde in trailers didn’t rise to the top of our priority list at that time, and if I could roll the tape back, I would change that,” he said.

Formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and 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.

Frumkin said problems with formaldehyde levels in trailers date back to the 1980s, but seemed to “recede” until FEMA used tens of thousands of travel trailers to shelter victims of the 2005 storms.

Last week, FEMA announced that it is expanding its effort to identify safer alternatives to trailers and mobile homes.

Landrieu asked if the recent test results on FEMA trailers and mobile homes also apply to privately owned mobile homes. Frumkin said the results “may not be generalizable to other trailers in other settings.”

Landrieu also pressed Johnson to explain why a FEMA report on disaster planning, due in July 2007, still has not been submitted to Congress. Johnson said FEMA hopes to deliver the report by April 1.

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