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Source of Formaldehyde in FEMA Trailers

written by: scopet • edited by: KennethSleight • updated: 6/27/2011

FEMA bought thousands of cheaply made trailers to serve as an alternative homes after Hurricane Katrina.The trailers were manufactured of contaminated wooden products, covered in white aluminum siding made from formaldehyde resin that caused people to become sick when they moved in.

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    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was responsible for the choice made to purchase travel trailers used after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. FEMA appointed a manufacturing consultant for the design, specifications and installations of travel trailers. The consultant then provided thousands of these travel trailers at a relatively low cost to Katrina survivors. These cheaply made trailers were meant as housing relief and alternative replacement for Hurricane survivor victims in Louisiana.

    Unfortunately, the materials used for these travel trailers were soon found to make many people sick. It was reported that materials were emiting toxins into the air from the structures inside the trailers. Appliances like ovens and dishwashers produce heat. When used near particleboards or structures made with formaldehyde resins, the gas became more concentrated and toxic when released.

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    FEMA Trailers

    Fema Trailers
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    Image courtesy: Ecoenquirer

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    Recently added to a list of known carcinogens, formaldehyde is a common cause of respiratory health problems such as asthma, bronchitis, and allergies. It is widely used as a wood preservative and bonding agent in products installed in single-family dwellings and apartments, including in furniture and cabinetry.

    Building surveys have shown that formaldehyde occurs mostly indoors when large quantities of wood products are installed in buildings. Its complaint status is also related to the fact that the illness syndrome associated with it is not generally diagnosed and treated in traditional medical practice.

    Formaldehyde is colorless but contains a pungent-smelling gas, which has shown to produce watery eyes, burning sensations including throat and breathing difficulties, especially when the level of exposure is greater above 0.1 parts per million. Asthma attacks can be triggered in humans by high formaldehyde concentrations. These may also cause other effects such as wheezing, fatigue, skin rashes, and severe allergic reactions.

    Indoor air pollution associated with combustion has a long history that goes back to the first human dwelling and use of fire woods. Combustion pollutants are common contaminants of indoor environments as well as outdoor environments. Combustion pollutants are gases or particles such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particles, and sulfur dioxide, aldehydes and so on. People spend a lot of time indoors and then the quality of the air indoors can affect their health in so many ways without even knowing, for example, why they experience breathing problems. Infants, young children, and the elderly particularly are groups proven to be more susceptible to pollutants. People with chronic respiratory or cardiovascular diseases are also more susceptible than others to pollutants. Depending on the type and amount of pollutants, the health effects of combustion pollutants range from headaches and breathing difficulties to death.

    Therefore, we should be concerned about these pollutants and manage the combustion pollutants. The high level of exposure is severe when heat from the appliances in our homes are given off from the particleboards manufactured from the wooden products will emit toxins to the air inside the travel trailers. Formaldehyde is normally indicated in a small amount in the materials used in the production of the trailers until they become very polluting and emissible in the air that cause occupants to become sick.

    Contaminated Areas: The parts of the trailers that were actually contaminated were particleboard subflooring, foam insulation, wall paneling, hardwood flooring, and plywood. A cost effective remedy is to make the particleboard airtight by applying sealant to all surfaces especially cabinets. It is best to carry out this project outdoors, if possible, or during warmer months with the windows open so that the gases will air out. Removing the doors, handles and hinges is a must because it offers the opportunity to update the hardware for a fresh look. Water-based polyurethane sealants are fairly nontoxic and render clear finishes. They can be applied to the particleboards in multiple coats, primed and painted, using only the amount of paint required for the particular job. Any paint not reused for a few years before the quality degrades, should be taken to a hazardous waste consolidation facility. Structural Engineers should be able to recommend the use of woods duly certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for responsible manufacturing management practices. If you fail to meet these preceding challenges, symptoms are very severe in residents of travel trailers or newly constructed homes with particleboard and subflooring.

    References:

    An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality : www.epa.gov/iaq/formalde.html

    Emission form the particleboard and Plywood Paneling, by GE Myers: www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/8941

    Indoor Air Pollution: www.epa.gov./ebtpages/airindoorairpollution.html

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