FEMA's Formaldehyde Trailers are Back in the Gulf

| Thu Jul. 1, 2010 4:16 PM EDT

As if people in the Gulf coast didn't already have enough health concerns due to the BP disaster, now it appears the infamous formaldehyde trailers used in the region after Hurricane Katrina are making a reappearance.

After Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided 120,000 trailers to people who lost their homes during the storm. The government banned them from use for long-term housing though, after they were found to have high levels of formaldehyde, which can cause cancer, respiratory problems, leukemia, and other health conditions. They were back in the news earlier this year when the federal government put some of the trailers up for auction, sparking concern among environmental and public health groups. Now the New York Times reports that they're making a comeback as living quarters for cleanup workers:

Ron Mason, owner of a disaster contracting firm, Alpha 1, said that in the past two weeks he had sold more than 20 of the trailers to cleanup workers and the companies that employ them in Venice and Grand Isle, La.
Even though federal regulators have said the trailers are not to be used for housing because of formaldehyde’s health risks, Mr. Mason said some of these workers had bought them so they could be together with their wives and children after work.
"These are perfectly good trailers," Mr. Mason said, adding that he has leased land in and around Venice for 40 more trailers that are being delivered from Texas in the coming weeks. "Look, you know that new car smell? Well, that’s formaldehyde, too. The stuff is in everything. It’s not a big deal."

Of course, many, many others would disagree. The tainted trailers are supposed to have placards on them noting thy are "not to be used for housing," but as the Times reports, these warning are not always in place. There's also a risk that the trailers, which are going for as little as $2,500, could be resold several times in the coming months and years, long after the warnings have disappeared (if they were ever posted in the first place).

The policy of selling the trailers off to likely unsuspecting and probably low-income people, is highly questionable by itself. But a piece on the auction in the Washington Post in March included this ominous passage, which made it clear that the government hasn’t made much of an effort to change its ways:

But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still have not issued a contract for a long-promised study of the health effects on children who lived in trailers; no binding safety standards for formaldehyde in housing have been set; and FEMA is still fleshing out how it would manage housing in a future Katrina-scale catastrophe.

Now we're in the midst of that next Katrina-scale catastrophe, and FEMA was no more prepared.