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Formaldehyde Found in Houses Provided for Katrina Victims in Mississippi

Headquarters of Mississippi Emergency Management Agency

In the latest chapter of the formaldehyde controversy we’ve been tracking, the Sierra Club has unearthed documents showing that the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency knew for months that cottages it provided to Hurricane Katrina victims contained potentially dangerous levels of the chemical – but MEMA never told the cottage residents. 

"MEMA apparently made the same mistakes as FEMA did earlier in denying a problem with formaldehyde in FEMA housing," said Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club employee who has been leading the organization’s formaldehyde campaign since April 2006. That’s when Gillette discovered high levels of formaldehyde inside trailers FEMA issued to Katrina survivors.  

In May of this year, the Sierra Club tested formaldehyde levels in the MEMA homes, known as "Katrina cottages," and found levels high enough to cause health problems.  The organization immediately shared the results of its testing with MEMA, and the agency promised to follow up with its own tests.

Earlier this month, a MEMA spokesman told the Biloxi Sun Herald that it still hadn’t conducted the promised testing. But documents obtained by the Sierra Club show that MEMA had in fact tested some of the cottages in April and found formaldehyde at levels between .046 parts per million and .116 parts per million.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that workers should not be exposed to an average of .016 parts per million for more than 10 hours without wearing a respirator.  FEMA adopted that standard for its trailers in April 2008, after a congressional investigation revealed that the agency avoided testing trailers for formaldehyde because of concerns about litigation.

In defense of MEMA, its executive director, Mike Womack, said the agency’s tests were designed only to determine whether factors like temperature, humidity, or the amount of time a unit was closed after shipment affected formaldehyde levels.  He said the federal government has so many conflicting formaldehyde standards that it was hard for MEMA to determine which one to follow, especially since none of the standards apply specifically to formaldehyde levels inside homes. 

The Office of Safety and Health Administration has a standard for workers who are exposed to the chemical. The department of Housing and Urban Development has a standard for formaldehyde off-gassing from plywood and particleboard used to build public housing. And the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control both have their own recommended safety levels, but neither of them is enforceable.

Womack said the MEMA cottages were built in compliance with the HUD standard, which is .4 parts per million.  

"We did not tell people we tested the cottages, because there was and still is no national formaldehyde standard for indoor air quality," Womack said. He added that he has received only one or two complaints from cottage occupants about formaldehyde-related symptoms like coughing, wheezing and headaches.  "It is not easy to determine what level causes health problems for people."

In September, several months after MEMA conducted its tests, it delivered brochures to residents explaining that formaldehyde is often found in temporary homes and that levels can rise when occupants smoke, drink alcohol or cook. 

FEMA officials provided similar information three years ago, when Hurricane Katrina victims began complaining that formaldehyde fumes in their FEMA-issued trailers were making them sick.

Formaldehyde can increase the risk of cancer and asthma attacks and can cause severe skin, ear, nose and throat irritations. The chemical is found in the glue that is used to make plywood and particleboard in most trailers.

Because formaldehyde can be particularly harmful to children, the Centers for Disease Control has promised to conduct a study examining the health of children who lived in the FEMA trailers. 

Last month, however, ProPublica found that the study is still stuck in the planning stages and that the CDC hasn’t figured out how it will find the children, most of whom have long since moved out of the trailers.

Yesterday, CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden told ProPublica that FEMA still hasn’t given the CDC the data it needs to begin finding the children.  The CDC requested that data in June.

"We don’t really know at this point when we will receive the data," Burden said.  "It should be within the coming weeks, but I can’t say if it’s going to be two weeks, eight weeks, or 12 weeks." 

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