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FEMA disputes formaldehyde study of Iowa trailers

By Nigel Duara
Associated Press Writer / October 21, 2008
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IOWA CITY, Iowa—The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday questioned a TV station's findings of high formaldehyde levels in agency-issued trailers and said the lifestyles and habits of the flood victims living in the trailers may be to blame.

Government tests have shown high formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers and mobile homes sent to Gulf Coast hurricane victims starting in 2005, and a judge recently cited evidence that FEMA delayed an investigation into complaints about the homes there.

KGAN-TV contracted with a chemical testing company to test 20 trailers in Cedar Rapids occupied by people displaced by June flooding. In a report that aired Monday, the station said all 20 trailers exceeded FEMA's standard for the preservative, which can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

In a conference call with reporters, three FEMA officials questioned KGAN's testing methods and the validity of the findings.

"Only mobile homes and only park models that fell below (the state's formaldehyde threshold) and validated through that testing were provided to the state of Iowa," said FEMA Assistant Administrator David Garratt. "FEMA stands behind those tests."

Gov. Chet Culver has asked FEMA Administrator David Paulison for retesting of the trailers, and Garratt said the agency was discussing it. Phone calls to FEMA later Tuesday were not returned.

Garratt said FEMA tests trailers before people move in so the air sample is consistent. He said cooking, smoking and storing dry-cleaning products can elevate levels of formaldehyde.

"It's not unusual that the levels in a mobile home will rise and fall as different variables are introduced into that," Garratt said. "From FEMA's perspective, the mobile homes and park models that we have deployed into Iowa are probably the most safe in terms of formaldehyde levels in the state of Iowa."

Capt. Merritt Lake, the director of forest health protection and wellness with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Health Affairs, said the survey didn't fit government-approved methods for testing for formaldehyde.

"From what I hear, the samples that were taken here in Iowa by the TV station did not use (the nationally recognized methodology), and that leaves some concern," Lake said. "Any decent research study, you must account for the variables that could influence your results."

The KGAN-TV test found that six of the trailers had levels of formaldehyde that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency and American Lung Association limits, which are more stringent than FEMA's or Iowa's standards.

Lake said the tests recorded the peak levels of formaldehyde in a 24-hour period, not a daily average. "It's basically a worst-case test as opposed to an average," Lake said.

The levels in the trailers ranged from 0.023 parts per million to 0.111 parts per million. The FEMA threshold is 0.016 parts per million, and the state accepts 0.04 parts per million.

April Samp, KGAN-TV's news director, said the station contracted with Florida-based Advanced Chemical Sensors Inc. to test the samples, and they tested only trailers in which no one was a smoker.

Samp said the testing company issued receptor "badges" that were left in the trailers for 24 hours, sealed and mailed to the company to be tested.

The conference call between reporters and FEMA officials turned testy when Samp said an infant living in a tested trailer had been taken to the hospital with a nosebleed.

"Some of these people are moms with babies, OK?" Samp said. "What responsibility does FEMA have to make sure that the air quality is safe enough to continue living there, even if (the reading) wasn't the baseline number?"

FEMA spokesman Michael Lapinski replied that residents unhappy with their trailers could move out.

"You can have a health concern regardless of what the formaldehyde reading is," Lapinski said. "If you have a health concern and you want to move out of that housing, you're free to move out of that housing." But moving out of that housing could cost the residents, said Bill Vogel, FEMA's coordinating officer for disaster recovery in Iowa. If they've already received the maximum of $28,800 in a housing-assistance grant from FEMA, then they'll be moving out on their own dime.

Culver has requested that FEMA offer free tests to Iowans using 542 other FEMA trailers in Iowa and that the agency help residents if the tests show unsafe levels of formaldehyde.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in New Orleans ruled the government is not immune from lawsuits claiming Gulf Coast hurricane victims were exposed to high formaldehyde levels in FEMA-provided trailers. The judge said there was evidence FEMA delayed investigating complaints about the trailers because it might be held legally responsible.

Roughly 800 people are plaintiffs in the Gulf Coast cases, and attorneys are seeking certification as a class-action on behalf of thousands of people who lived in FEMA trailers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Government tests of the air quality in hundreds of those trailers and mobile homes showed formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

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