Formaldehyde and travel trailers

Introduction

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has prepared information about the presence of the chemical substance formaldehyde in travel trailers provided by the agency.

What is FEMA doing to address health questions and concerns about formaldehyde in travel trailers in the Gulf Coast area?

The health and safety of residents is FEMA's primary concern. The agency has asked the Centers for Control and Prevention (CDC) for its assistance and expertise in conducting a public health assessment of indoor air quality in travel trailers housing disaster victims in the Gulf Coast states.

I thought FEMA had already done a travel trailer study.

Yes. Last summer the Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry tested air samples from travel trailers. That study showed that ventilating the units is effective in reducing levels of formaldehyde. However, FEMA believes additional research is needed to address concerns about the health effects of living in travel trailers for prolonged periods of time.

What will the new study do?

caption Such travel trailers as these have been provided in the aftermath of recent Gulf Coast hurricanes. Under certain conditions, they have been shown to expose inhabitants to relatively high levels of formaldehyde. (Source: CDC).

The study will involve testing actual air quality conditions in travel trailers when they are used for longer periods of time under real-life conditions. In the study conducted last, the testing was done in new, unoccupied trailers so that we could determine formaldehyde levels in the units themselves, excluding any changes related to activities by the occupants, such as smoking.

The critically important question that FEMA is asking CDC to address focuses on whether or not there is an association between poor indoor air quality in the travel trailers and adverse health effects in children who live in them. The investigation will focus on finding some short-term answers and longer-term indoor environmental assessment collected over time.

How serious of a threat to public health does FEMA consider formaldehyde exposure to be?

FEMA is not a health or science agency and has, therefore, consulted with the federal agencies and offices that do have the medical jurisdiction and science technology to properly test, evaluate and provide the proper conclusions on the effects of formaldehyde on citizens living in FEMA-provided travel trailers. Those agencies include the DHS OHA, EPA, CDC and all of its sub-agencies as well as with state health officials. FEMA neither sets health standards nor has the expertise or capability to monitor health issues. Therefore, the agency will follow the recommendations of those agencies that do have the responsibilities for determining the effects of exposure to formaldehyde under specific conditions.

What materials contain formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is found in new permanent press fabrics, new carpets, latex paint, fingernail polish, antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, dish-washing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe-care agents, carpet cleaners, glues, adhesives, lacquers and plastics. In addition formaldehyde is produced by cigarettes and other tobacco products and gas cookers.

How many complaints has FEMA received about potential formaldehyde emissions in travel trailers to date?

Of the 120,000 travel trailers and mobile homes provided to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf, FEMA has documented 206 complaints of strange odors, including formaldehyde complaints. At residents' requests, FEMA switched out units for trailers that had already been used and ventilated. FEMA distributed information to trailer occupants across the country explaining how persons sensitive to formaldehyde may be affected by its presence and laid out actions that should be taken to reduce exposure in the trailers.

Does FEMA have any information on how many trailers might be affected?

All new, unused and unventilated travel trailers have formaldehyde in them. The concentration of formaldehyde can be reduced significantly by ventilating the units by running fans with open doors and windows. Other factors that affect the levels of formaldehyde indoors include the type and age of source materials, temperature and humidity. It also is important to recognize that some people are more sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde than others.

Has FEMA replaced any trailers as a result of complaints about formaldehyde in travel trailers?

FEMA continues to replace those trailers where applicants have requested a different unit. As of June 15, 2007, FEMA has replaced 57 units. Some of the households complaining about formaldehyde increased the ventilation in the unit or decided against FEMA's offer to swap their unit, and others have identified more permanent housing solutions, resulting in unit deactivation.

What did FEMA do initially to address complaints about formaldehyde emissions in travel trailers?

One of FEMA's highest priorities is the health, safety and security of the people who are temporarily living in travel trailers while they rebuild their lives following the devastation caused by disasters. When FEMA learned about concerns about formaldehyde, it took steps to inform occupants about proper ventilation, facilitated the exchange of trailers, provided alternate forms of housing when requested and available and initiated air monitoring and sampling plans.

The agency implemented a practice of investigating complaints about formaldehyde levels; sending a housing staff employee to visit with the occupants of the units to discuss ventilation of the unit. If the unit had an obvious formaldehyde odor or the occupants were experiencing physical discomfort while in the unit, FEMA offered to replace the unit with a different unit that had reduced levels of formaldehyde emissions.

Has FEMA taken steps to address the issues raised by the medical community?

Based on issues recently brought to our attention and new questions about health effects of formaldehyde, FEMA has again engaged the scientific community to review current concerns about the effects of formaldehyde on travel trailer residents of the Gulf. In conducting this re-evaluation, FEMA has teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Health Affairs (DHS OHA), and multiple agencies within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of note, these evaluations will not be limited to formaldehyde, but will take a holistic view of analyzing symptoms and possible causes. These agencies will work together to determine the relationship between the air quality in FEMA's travel trailers and the health of the residents who live in them.

Has FEMA changed any policies with regard to acceptable formaldehyde levels in travel trailers since Gulf Coast residents started complaining about exposure?

FEMA has already begun to apply standards issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for formaldehyde emission levels for wood products used in the construction of manufactured homes (mobile homes) to both travel trailers and park models purchased by the agency. Park models are larger than travel trailers, but smaller than manufactured homes.

The HUD standard places limits on formaldehyde emissions and product certification of all plywood and particleboard materials, which involves emission certification by a nationally recognized testing laboratory and a written quality control plan for each plant where particle board is produced or finished or where the plywood is finished. These standards have been required by HUD for manufactured homes, and now FEMA's specifications have incorporated those same standards for travel trailers.

The HUD standards also require that each manufactured home be provided with a Health Notice on formaldehyde emissions as required by 3280.309 of the Standards. Adjustments to this will be made based on the findings of follow-up reviews by agencies responsible for determining the effects of formaldehyde and potentially setting standards.

Decisions on additional provisions or support for residents living in FEMA-provided travel trailers will be based on the findings of the identified medial, safety and health professionals.

Release Date: July 20, 2007
Last Modified: December 17, 2007

Further Reading

Glossary

Citation

(2008). Formaldehyde and travel trailers. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbedce7896bb431f694121

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