The Sierra Club — the environmental group that blew the whistle on FEMA when Hurricane Katrina victims were given toxic RV trailers to live in — has warned that some mobile homes en route to victims of the California wildfires have the same excessive formaldehyde levels that sickened some Katrina victims.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has confirmed that 50 new mobile homes from a Hope, Ark., storage facility are already on their way to Southern California as part of the federal relief effort for thousands who lost their homes to fires in October.
"We have started the transition," said James McIntyre, a spokesman for FEMA, which has been phasing out its use of "travel trailers" in favor of mobile homes.
FEMA claims that its mobile homes are safe, but concedes it has not tested these units, which were manufactured with materials similar to those in the toxic RV trailers.
But Sierra Club says random tests of FEMA mobile homes found at least three had formaldehyde levels over the Environmental Protection Agency limit of .10 parts per million.
Previous Sierra Club testing showed that 83 percent of FEMA homes tested in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama had levels of formaldehyde above the recommended limit.
"We have reason to question the safety of emergency homes going to California," said Sierra spokesman Oliver Bernstein. "FEMA had a grand solution not to give out the trailers and to give out mobile homes, and they think they have done their homework."
Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical most often used for embalming, but it is also commonly used as a glue in building materials, like particle board for cabinets in mobile homes. It can "out-gas," or leak into the air, under hot, humid conditions.
A known carcinogen, formaldehyde can cause an array of upper respiratory symptoms, and trigger asthma and breathing problems, particularly in the elderly and young children.
Since 1985, the federal government has set standards for the amount of formaldehyde that can leak from building materials in mobile homes, but it does not regulate travel trailers. But those limits are much higher than the EPA limits and can cause serious health problems, according to medical experts.
"Any trailers that are going to be deployed for use by the victims of the California fires should be tested before being moved," Rep. Henry Waxman, D., California told ABCNews.
"I remain concerned that many victims may be exposed to hazardous levels of formaldehyde gas in FEMA-issued mobile homes," he said. "FEMA should stop using trailers and mobile homes until they can guarantee their safety."
Waxman's oversight committee in the House of Representatives heard testimony from one Mississippi family who had experienced health problems and high medical bills living in two FEMA-provided mobile homes.
Lindsay and Steve Huckabee and their five children lost their apartment and all their belongings in Hurricane Katrina.
Now living in Kiln., Miss., they first received a faulty trailer from FEMA that was replaced with a mobile home in 2005. Within days, Lindsay, 26 and pregnant, began to have migraine headaches, and the children -- ages 2, 4, 6 and 10 -- had constant upper respiratory problems.