Testing conducted by the Sierra Club of air in FEMA trailers, like
some of these at a makeshift trailer park in Sabine Pass, has revealed
high levels of formaldehyde in many units in Mississippi.
Pete Churton/The Enterprise
An environmental group has found high levels of formaldehyde in travel
trailers used by Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi, which has
spawned court action against the travel trailer manufacturers.
There the local Sierra Club chapter tested the air quality in 31 travel
trailers and found all but two had formaldehyde levels at or above
those recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the
report on the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club's Web site.
On the Net
ˇ Federal Emergency Management Agency www.fema.gov
ˇ Occupational Safety & Health Administration www.osha.gov
ˇ The Formaldehyde Council www.formaldehyde.org
ˇ Sierra Club's Mississippi Chapter mississippi.sierraclub.org
ˇ Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter Golden Triangle Group
ˇ Environmental Protection Agency
In addition to embalming, the pungent chemical has a variety of other
uses. Formaldehyde-based glues are used to make particle boards and
paneling widely used in cabinetry, countertops, moldings, furniture, shelf
and stair systems, flooring and many other household furnishings,
according to the Formaldehyde Council's Web site.
The chemical also is one of the bases for materials used in cars,
wrinkle-free clothing, money and other everyday items, according to the
council's Web site.
Formaldehyde's unpleasant odor, emitted from the paneling, and its
subsequent health effects are the reason some Mississippi residents, who
have been living in FEMA travel trailers since Hurricane Katrina
devastated their homes, are suing the trailers' manufacturers and the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, according to the Indiana South Bend
Tribune's Web site. Indiana is where several of the travel trailer
manufacturers are based.
In Mississippi, the residents claimed formaldehyde caused "a clear and
present danger to the health and well-being" of the residents,
according to the Tribune's Web site.
But the same can't be said of the travel trailer residents in Southeast
"It's the 'new car smell,'" said Charles Powell, who has been with
Beaumont's FEMA office since October, adding he isn't aware of any
complaints about the air quality in their travel trailers.
Powell said by phone that when a travel trailer is set up and the keys
turned over, the residents are advised to air the trailer out and keep
air circulating in it.
There are at least 10 travel trailer manufacturers FEMA relied on to
produce enough travel trailers to help with the need for temporary
housing along the Gulf Coast, he said. There are more than 15 different model
names of FEMA trailers in Sabine Pass and a handful of trailers aren't
marked with any brand names.
Bill Tetley of the Sierra Club's Golden Triangle Group stated in an
e-mail that the group hasn't been approached by anyone about their travel
trailer's air quality, which probably is what happened in Mississippi.
The local group doesn't have any immediate plans to do similar tests,
FEMA officials with the New Orleans public affairs office said they
have so few complaints with travel trailers in Southwest Louisiana that
they haven't tracked them. The trailer has been switched out in each of
those cases in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes.
Health officials with the Port Arthur Health Department said they
haven't had any complaints of formaldehyde-related ailments, which include
burning eyes, irritated throat, sinus congestion, respiratory problems,
persistent coughing, rashes and nosebleeds.
Formaldehyde is considered a "probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing
agent)" by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mary Harris, a Sabine Pass resident, said she hasn't had problems with
her 35-foot FEMA trailer she has lived in since November. She goes to
the doctor regularly for checkups and hasn't had any unusual problems.
The FEMA trailer the Sniders have lived in since Dec. 28 has a warning
in the medicine cabinet that formaldehyde was used to manufacture some
of the trailer's parts, said Cheryl Snider, who is a member of the
Sabine Pass Organization for Disaster Relief.
She hasn't heard of anyone with complaints about the trailers' air
quality and probably would have through the relief organization, which has
fielded complaints about debris in ditches and concerns about
"It's not designed to be lived in for a long time," Cheryl Snider said.
"But as my husband says, (the travel trailer is) better than living in
She remembers the pungent smell and how her eyes would burn when she
would go into their mobile home after it had been closed up for more than
a few hours in the Southeast Texas heat.
The likely suspect? Formaldehyde.
That was more than 30 years ago when the Sabine Pass resident and her
husband, Carl, had just gotten married.
In subsequent models the Sniders have lived in, like the one that was
flooded by Hurricane Rita last September, the walls were textured and
didn't have the paneling.
"I haven't seen any of that in a long time," Carl Snider said.
ŠThe Beaumont Enterprise 2006