Nov. 7, 2007 -- 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.
Their daughter, who had been asthma-free for two years, had a reoccurence, and Lindsay had pre-term labor contractions and delivered five weeks early. The baby, now 22 months, has been in the hospital with asthmatic brochitis.
Their doctor finally advised testing the first mobile home and found .18 ppm of formaldehyde, nearly double the EPA limit.
FEMA replaced that home with another mobile home that has also tested over the limit, but the government has still not acted, she said.
"FEMA knew they had issues with the trailers," said Huckabee. "I hope the people of California don't take a 'lay down and take it' approach of people down here. I am grateful about what I have in times of disaster, but giving mobile homes with problems will open them up to huge lawsuits."
After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA purchased about 102,000 travel trailers at a cost of $2.6 billion to house flood victims. Some waited months to get their trailers, only to find out that the cheap building materials used were releasing toxic formaldehyde vapors.
Some of those living in the trailers reported experiencing irritated eyes, breathing problems, headaches, nausea or skin rashes, some after only five minutes.
Several government agencies set varying standards on exposure to formaldehyde. Construction of mobile homes is guided by standards set by the Department of Housing and Development, but there are no limits for recreational vehicles like travel trailers.
"There has been an issue with the travel trailers, but we have met or exceeded the standard HUD sets for mobile homes," according to FEMA's McIntyre, who confirmed that the emergency homes bound for California had never been used or tested.
"Sierra has an agenda," he said. "All these units are built with formaldehyde? It's part of the process," he said referring to the fact that some amounts of formaldehyde is allowed.
Hurricane victims still occupy more than 56,000 trailer units, according to the Sierra Club, which says FEMA has taken only limited steps to ensure their safety.
McIntyre acknowledges people are still living in the suspect trailers, but said "we are in the process of aggressively moving them to other types of housing," he said.
FEMA also said it is awaiting evaluations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the dangers posed by formaldehyde.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., had tried to obtain mobile homes from the same Arkansas facility as the California-bound units for housing on Native American reservation lands. Before delivery, he sent a letter to FEMA director David Paulison after hearing about risks.
"Specifically as it applies to mobile homes, what has FEMA done to ensure formaldehyde levels are safe for long term habitation?" he wrote. "Will air quality testing be done on each mobile home before they are distributed to ensure no related threats arise in tribal mobile homes?"
"He did have concerns and was told the mobile homes met HUD guidelines," said Johnson's communications director Julianne Fisher.
The travel trailer industry, long known for its lax construction practices, is once again using cheaper but banned formaldehyde-based materials, a practice that was outlawed in the United States more than 20 years ago, according to Thad Godish, a professor of environmental science at Indiana's Ball State University.
"It's a nasty gas and is immediately recognizable," said Godish, who testified in the consumer lawsuits of the 1980s.
The Occupational Safety and Health Organization limits exposure in the workplace, up to .75 parts per million for an eight-hour day, but the EPA says that at air levels of .10 or above, "acute health effects can occur."
OSHA regulations say that formaldehyde is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," and is sometimes associated with nasal and sinus cancer.
Lawsuits, new regulations and the advent of safer home building materials limited the use of formaldehyde by the early 1990s, and trailer manufacturers said they would voluntarily comply, Godish says.
But in 2006, the Sierra Club began receiving health complaints from hundreds of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims who were living in cheaply constructed trailers provided by FEMA.
When the environmental group began testing the air quality, it found 83 percent of the trailers had levels three times higher than the EPA limit.
The Sierra Club has set up a Web site for complaints and, those who experience problems can purchase a test kit to see if their housing units have high formaldehyde levels.
"FEMA housing units should come with a warning sign: Hazardous to your health," said Bill Corcoran, Sierra's regional representative in Los Angeles. "Fire survivors shouldn't be victimized by their own government."