Recent tests of 519 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi showed an average of about five times the level of formaldehyde found inside most modern homes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced.
The toxicity level inside some trailers was nearly 40 times customary exposure levels, raising fears that residents could contract respiratory problems.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said at a news conference they hope relocate people out of the trailers before the Gulf Coast's sweltering summer months, when heat and a lack of ventilation inside 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, according to the Associated Press.
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.
"We're also concerned because they've been in there 18 months, and even a low level could result in large cumulative exposure," she told the Washington Post. "We know less about effects of chronic exposure. It's very important we reduce it as much and as quickly as we can, and the way to do that is to get people out of these homes."
The study, which was conducted from Dec. 21 through Jan. 23 and long after residents moved in, likely under-represents long-term exposures since formaldehyde levels tend to be higher in newer travel trailers and during warmer weather, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided about 120,000 travel trailers to victims of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2006, some occupants began reporting headaches and nosebleeds.
The health findings come 23 months after FEMA first received reports of health problems and test results showing formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold, the Post reported.
FEMA should move people out quickly, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions, said Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards.
"We do not want people exposed to this for very much longer," McGeehin said.
While there are no federal safety standard for formaldehyde fumes in homes, the levels found in the trailers are high enough to cause burning eyes and breathing problems for people who have asthma or sensitivity to air pollutants, said McGeehin.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized the Bush administration's response to the health concerns. "After dragging its feet for over a year, the administration has finally come clean and released data on the health risks facing occupants of travel trailers in the Gulf Coast. I fully expect FEMA to comply with CDC's recommendation and begin moving people out immediately," Thompson said.
In New Orleans, Lynette Hooks, 48, told the AP that FEMA "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.
A group of seven law firms representing thousands of Gulf Coast citizens in litigation against more than a dozen manufacturers of the trailers released a released a statement on Thursday.
"We allege that the manufacturers produced and delivered tens of thousands of unsafe and hazardous travel trailers, at a cost to our government of more than $2.4 billion, and we urge the federal government to investigate the manufacturers of these units immediately," said Tony Buzbee of the Buzbee Law Firm, in Galveston, Texas, in the statement.
Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative, can cause vision and respiratory problems, and long-term exposure has been linked to cancer, as well as to asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, building materials and household items like paints, draperies and pressed wood products release formaldehyde.
Despite the CDC recommendations, a FEMA spokesman announced that the agency would still distribute mobile homes to victims of last week's tornadoes in Arkansas and Tennessee.