Guest Commentary

The effects of trailers contaminated with formaldehyde have reached Southern Arizona

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently validated what has been known for some time: FEMA-issued trailers given to Gulf Coast evacuees after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pose a serious health risk to occupants due to high levels of formaldehyde fumes.

The confirmation came on the heels of a CDC study that found dangerous amounts of formaldehyde in many travel trailers and mobile homes. This study follows another study, carried out by FEMA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which also found high levels of the fumes--but the first study came under fire from scientists who criticized its methodology and blasted its results. As a result, a second round of tests was ordered.

Now that the hazards have been verified, action is being taken: Trailers that remain in use will be reclaimed by FEMA. According to FEMA, less than 40,000 units remain occupied in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

But even as far from hurricane states as Arizona, the trailers have generated controversy. They are suspected to be involved in health problems experienced by some occupants of roughly 100 trailers bought by copper company Phelps Dodge to house miners during the current copper boom. Strip mines that were closed down are now active again, but small towns near the mines are struggling to provide housing for miners and their families.

Phelps Dodge has provided trailers rent-free for miners in Morenci and Clifton, and families living in the trailers have complained of the same types of ailments that have sickened Gulf Coast trailer occupants. Last August, The Arizona Republic reported on two families, both with children, and both residing in trailers. Both families complained of constant sickness, headaches or rashes thought to be caused by formaldehyde exposure.

In hindsight, the FEMA could have--and, arguably, should have--taken action two years ago, when field staff in Louisiana and Mississippi learned of the problem and sought to conduct testing. Despite field agents taking the lead, FEMA lawyers and bureaucrats commanded them to leave the issue alone. For more than two years, Gulf Coast residents have endured foot-dragging and delays from the agency--on top of the possibly cancerous fumes emanating from their temporary shelters.

How did these trailers become so contaminated? Recreational vehicles and travel trailers are sold by the tens of thousands every year, and although most have formaldehyde in them, few complaints have surfaced from RV consumers.

But trailers that went to FEMA and other organizations after the hurricanes are a different matter. Although thousands of trailers were bought by FEMA from dealer inventories, the available stock was insufficient. FEMA contracted with travel-trailer manufacturers to produce tens of thousands more units. This surge in orders overwhelmed suppliers and manufacturers, who ramped up production, opening 24-hour assembly lines.

U.S. manufacturers sought supplies elsewhere. Chinese hardwood products were imported and shipped to trailer manufacturers. China admittedly has a problem with the quality of its exports, and industry representatives have conceded that Chinese hardwood contains problematic levels of the formaldehyde.

When the tainted wood arrived at trailer factories, workers were among the first to experience headaches, bloody noses, upper-respiratory complications and burning eyes: symptoms related to formaldehyde exposure. Although there are standards regarding workplace exposure to the chemical, there is no standard for formaldehyde levels in trailers.

With more than 150,000 trailers put in use since 2005, tens of thousands of people may have been exposed. At least a half-dozen lawsuits concerning formaldehyde are pending, and more are sure to come.

FEMA has declared that all trailer occupants will be moved from their dangerous shelters before summer. It will be a monumental task, and it comes too late to save thousands of occupants from chronic health conditions that they have endured in contaminated trailers since Katrina and Rita.

But at long last, the debacle of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers may be nearing an end.