From: Reuters
Published March 2, 2008 07:28 PM

Study shows need to ditch Katrina trailers

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Certain brands and sizes of trailers used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina release more formaldehyde than others and officials say they want to check a wider selection of temporary housing.

A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obtained by Reuters did not find a clear enough pattern to state definitively that the products of any one manufacturer were more dangerous than another. But the CDC called for more investigation into the differences it identified.

"There are different brands that are statistically significantly higher than other brands," Dr. Michael McGeehin from the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health said in a telephone interview.

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The larger, park model trailers, up to 400 square feet in size, appeared to have the lowest formaldehyde levels while the smallest mobile homes tended to have the highest, the report shows.

Formaldehyde, a chemical used in the manufacture of building materials, can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. High levels of exposure may cause cancer.

A random sampling of trailers showed some examples of every type and brand had very high levels of formaldehyde, while other examples of every type and brand had very low levels. People have been living in them since hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped across the Gulf Coast in the late summer of 2005.

While recreational use of trailers may not pose a problem, schools often use them for temporary classrooms.

McGeehin said CDC would confer with manufacturers, the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies about the issue.

Last month the CDC reported its tests of 519 trailers provided to Katrina victims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

"These data obviously bring to your mind and other people's minds that perhaps there needs to be other sampling done," he said.

HIGHER ODDS OF ILLNESS

Average levels of formaldehyde in the tested units was about 77 parts per billion (ppb) -- a level high enough to raise the odds of cancer and respiratory diseases.

The average formaldehyde level was 81 ppb among travel trailers, 59 ppb among mobile homes, and 40 ppb among park models, the CDC found. Some levels were as low as 3 ppb while others were above 500 ppb.

"Travel trailers from Gulfstream, Keystone, and Pilgrim were not significantly different from each other but each showed statistically significantly higher levels of formaldehyde than the other travel-trailer strata combined," the report reads.

"All other things being equal, FEMA may want to use these data as they are moving people out," McGeehin said.

Mike Lapinski, FEMA federal coordinating officer, said the agency would use the information to try to move people out of the trailers faster. He said 35,000 trailers are still occupied in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana.

"What the CDC report does is it is one more tool that we can use to support either getting additional authority or additional capabilities ... to better transition people to long term solutions," Lapinski said.

For example, FEMA or states could get authority to spend more to rent houses or apartments.

But Lapinski said FEMA was not planning to change its priorities for moving families out of trailers. "The priority is still with kids," he said. People who have reported health problems that could be related to the trailers also move to the front of the line, he said.

Representatives of Gulfstream and Pilgrim could not be immediately reached for comment.

(Editing by Alan Elsner)

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