The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it will step up efforts to move Gulf Coast hurricane victims out of more than 35,000 trailers because tests indicate some of the temporary homes contain high levels of formaldehyde.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fumes from 519 tested trailer and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi were - on average - about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said at a news conference they hope to get people out of the trailers before the warm summer months, when heat and a lack of ventilation in the trailers could make formaldehyde accumulations worse.
"The real issue is not what it will cost but how fast we can move people out," Paulison said.
Gerberding said that although formaldehyde levels were low in some trailers, others were high enough to cause breathing problems for children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory problems.
About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, Gerberding said.
Trailer occupants will be moved to apartments or hotels. If necessary sturdier mobile homes - pre-tested for formaldehyde - will be used, he said.
Even as it began a rush to move out thousands of victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA said it is sticking with plans to distribute mobile homes to victims of recent tornadoes. Thousands of FEMA trailers were intended for hurricane victims but have sat vacant at the Hope, Arkansas, airport.
Paulison said workers would air out mobile homes at Hope for up to two weeks and later test them. "We're not going to give somebody a mobile home that tested high for formaldehyde," he said.
In Louisiana, there are 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers. In Mississippi, there are 10,362, according to FEMA figures. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one time, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.
Paulison also said FEMA will never again use travel trailers to house disaster victims but may continue to use larger, better constructed mobile homes.
Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The CDC said the levels of formaldehyde varied widely, and that some trailers had low levels. Others, however, had levels high enough to cause burning eyes and breathing problems for people who have asthma or sensitivity to air pollutants, said Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards.
"Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am," Lynette Hooks, 48, said as she sat in her trailer near her still-damaged house in New Orleans. "They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems."
A former nursing assistant now on disability, she has been living in a cramped FEMA trailer next to her flood-ravaged house since October 2006, sharing it with her teenage son, 21-year-old daughter and the daughter's 9-month-old son.
Her tiny trailer is falling apart. Bed frames have dislodged from the superstructure and the door barely opens. Roaches climbed up a nearby wall as she spoke.
Hooks said that since she began living in the trailer, she has experienced headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.
With housing still in short supply - 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, the pace of rebuilding has been slow, and rents are out of reach for many - Ernest Penns said he was grateful for his trailer.