In retrospect, it was a recipe for potential illness.
Take a relatively small travel trailer, newly made with building materials that include formaldehyde, a chemical that is frequently used in adhesives found in wood and other products. Close it tight and send it to the sultry Gulf Coast where it bakes before use. Move a family right in.
Multiply this by thousands, and it is little wonder that some of the new residents of those trailers complained they were sickened by the formaldehyde fumes. One man was found dead in his trailer after complaining of them. To add insult to injury, consider that the new occupants of the trailers were people made homeless by the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
A congressional committee last week hauled in four executives of northern Indiana trailer manufacturers to explain how it all happened. Clearly, some members of Congress wanted to blame them for manufacturing products that made people sick. On the other extreme, Congressman Mark Souder, who represents the Elkhart County area where the four firms are located, thought the companies should be exonerated and criticized the hearing as politically motivated.
But the hearing did offer an education about formaldehyde as well as more reminders of the government’s failures to react to Hurricane Katrina.
Perhaps most importantly, the hearing pointed to a glaring hole in federal standards that Congress and/or federal regulators should address.
Formaldehyde is widespread in buildings and can, at high levels, cause difficult breathing and even trigger asthma attacks. It is a suspected, but not proven, carcinogen.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered the manufacturing of thousands of travel trailers to temporarily house Katrina victims after the 2005 natural disaster. Questions about formaldehyde began emerging by June 2006, but it was another year before the government ordered a halt to selling the trailers and months after that before the government finally tested formaldehyde levels in them. Finally, in February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that tests found unacceptably high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.
Jim Shea, chairman of Nappanee-based Gulf Stream Coach, told the committee last week that the company tested unoccupied trailers in the Gulf Coast and after finding high levels, contacted FEMA. “We were ready, willing and able to assist FEMA,” Shea testified, but the agency “did not accept our offer.”
Perhaps the most glaring conclusion to come out of the hearings is that while the Department of Housing and Urban Development has standards for levels of formaldehyde in mobile homes, there is no government standard for travel trailers. This is an omission the government obviously must address – particularly if it is going to offer such trailers to displaced victims of disaster.