GULFPORT, MISS. — The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday that it would accelerate efforts to get victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita out of government-supplied trailers after tests showed that the temporary residences contain unhealthy levels of toxic formaldehyde.
Tests in a statistically sampled selection of 519 trailers showed that formaldehyde levels averaged five times higher than levels in new housing, and in some cases much higher than that.
There are no federal standards for formaldehyde levels, but Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news briefing Thursday that about a third of the homes had levels high enough to create problems for children, the elderly and adults who already have respiratory problems. About 5% of the homes had formaldehyde levels high enough to make even healthy adults sick.
Gerberding and FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said they feared that warmer weather this summer would raise levels inside the trailers as the chemical was baked out of fiberboard, plywood, rugs and other materials used in construction.
Paulison said the agency would move people into hotels and apartments, with the elderly, families with children and people with asthma or other chronic conditions getting priority -- as well as occupants of units with high formaldehyde levels.
"The real issue is not what it will cost, but how fast we can move people out," he said. "We have to be very aggressive about it."
FEMA said that as of Feb. 1, there were about 38,297 households still in trailers and mobile homes on the Gulf Coast. About 5,000 to 6,000 of those were families living in group sites, and they will be among the first to be relocated.
Most of the rest, Paulison said, are in trailers parked in their own driveways while they are rebuilding homes. At the peak of the crisis, about 144,000 families were living in the FEMA-supplied trailers.
The agency has been moving 800 to 1,000 households per week out of the temporary residences, Paulison said.
However, he said, the agency would proceed with plans to supply trailers and manufactured housing to victims of recent tornadoes in Arkansas and Tennessee, and perhaps also Alabama and Kentucky.
He noted the shortage of apartments and other facilities in those areas and said that trailers would be checked for formaldehyde levels before being made available to storm victims.
In Washington, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent letters to three manufacturers of the trailers and mobile homes asking what they knew about formaldehyde levels and about their contacts with FEMA on the subject.
Residents of the trailers wondered Thursday why it had taken FEMA so long to address the problem.
Matthew Abson, 46, a building contractor who has lived in a FEMA trailer in Gulfport, Miss., for 2 1/2 years, figured something was wrong when his FEMA caseworker came to his trailer last month wearing a mask. When he asked her why, she said "formaldehyde." Then she recommended he wear a hazardous-materials suit.
"If they knew chemicals are in the trailers, why did they put us in them?" Abson asked. "Billions [of dollars] were sent down here after Katrina, and I did not get a dime. All I got was this trailer, and now that's going to cause potential death?"
Abson said he has had trouble breathing over the last year. His roommate has scrubbed black mold off the inside of windows with bleach. Sometimes, he said, it just got too cold to keep the door and windows open.
News from the Washington news conference blared from some open windows of trailers in a quiet trailer park in east Gulfport on Thursday afternoon. Residents who answered their doors said FEMA officials had not notified them of the testing report.
"I'm ready to go," said Richard George Stepanek, 80, a painter, as he switched off the news. "This isn't good for a person my age."
Around the corner, retiree Alan Janowski, 73, said he had no intention of leaving. He said he was convinced the report was a "false scare," because "everything modern is made of poisonous plastic."
"All I know is I had a hell of a time getting this trailer, and I don't want to move," Janowski said. "Where would I go? I'll tell you, the way FEMA works, it'll take another year to get us out."
FEMA purchased 25,000 trailers and manufactured homes at a cost of more than $850 million after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. A fact sheet released Thursday said the agency has since received more than 7,000 complaints about fumes and health problems from residents of the trailers. Those who complained have already been given the option of moving, according to the fact sheet, and about 3,300 families have done so.
Spurred by the complaints and pressure from Congress, the CDC identified a statistically significant sample of 519 trailers that were tested for formaldehyde levels by an independent contractor between Dec. 21 and Jan. 23.
Those results were sent to the CDC a week ago, Gerberding said, and the agency has been checking and verifying them.
The testing showed an average formaldehyde level of 77 parts per billion (ppb), with a low of 3 ppb and a high of 590 ppb. The average level in new homes is 10 to 20 ppb.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, Gerberding said, and long-term exposure to levels of 77 ppb could have serious effects. Exposure to the higher levels can causing eye irritation, coughing and other respiratory problems.
Beginning Tuesday, Paulison said, FEMA workers will hand-deliver results of the tests to residents of each trailer studied. The agency will also hold group meetings in the affected areas to answer questions and offer help to those with health problems or particular concerns.