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Formaldehyde in FEMAville

Formaldehyde-tainted air may have caused respiratory ailments in residents of trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina victims by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, but that apparently has raised no bad memories or concerns among peop...

Formaldehyde-tainted air may have caused respiratory ailments in residents of trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina victims by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, but that apparently has raised no bad memories or concerns among people involved in the Red River Flood of 1997.

There has been no effort so far to look back at previous deployments of FEMA trailers. Nor does there appear to be anything on record - or in popular memory - suggesting that such a review would be warranted in the Red River Valley.

James McIntyre, acting press secretary for FEMA, said in an interview Tuesday that the Gulf trailers were obtained by the agency from private contractors and were of identical or similar construction to those deployed 10 years ago to the Red River Valley. But higher humidity in the Gulf may have caused greater release of formaldehyde vapor there.

"There is a possibility vapors occurred" in trailers in the Grand Forks area, "and it could be that nobody complained about it," he said. "People in the 1997 flood may have been more interested in rebuilding their lives" than in complaining about occasional fumes or odors.

The complaints from residents in Louisiana and Mississippi total a few hundred, McIntyre noted. About 140,000 trailers were made available to residents displaced by Katrina.

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In study results released earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta documented high levels of formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, in tests of 519 of those trailers and mobile homes provided to hurricane victims in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The formaldehyde is in a wood preservative and glue commonly used in construction of such trailers and mobile homes. Long-term exposure to accumulations of the substance in areas with poor ventilation may increase risk of cancer and such respiratory ailments as asthma, bronchitis and allergies, according to health authorities.

The CDC tested air quality in the Gulf trailers and mobile homes in December and January. When the results were announced, FEMA officials said they would expedite the removal of people still living in them.

Critics of the agency said the problem was just the latest foul-up by FEMA, which has been roundly trashed for what the New York Times called "its incredible record of ineptitude" in its handling of Katrina victims.

And there were earlier red flags and warnings about the formaldehyde threat in the Gulf, critics say. A man who had complained of fumes in his trailer was found dead in June 2006. Other families living in the trailers, along with several health and environmental agencies, had warned FEMA about the potential problems over the past two years.

No complaints here

Local health and government officials said they don't recall a single complaint or concern expressed about air quality in the hundreds of trailers parked in driveways and so-called FEMAvilles for as long as 18 months after the 1997 flood - except that the air in the Southern-built, often poorly insulated trailers was too cold in winter.

Air quality "never was an issue" here, said Jim Richter, executive director of East Grand Forks' housing and development agency and a key player in the city's flood recovery effort.

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"Nobody complained about sickness," he said.

Mayor Lynn Stauss agreed. "My wife and I lived in one from June to November (of 1997)," he said. "Sometimes you could get a strong odor off the carpets, I remember. But I can't recall any complaints about people getting sick from the air.

"They complained when they had to leave the trailers," Stauss said. "One person up and cried."

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, who was elected after the flood, has a similar recollection. Officials "had to pry people out of those trailers," he said, laughing. A physician, he said he remembers no talk among colleagues of any uptick in complaints about respiratory ailments.

Formaldehyde "has been used in the construction of mobile homes since they started building them," said Randy Ekren, who as an employee of Northland Property Management oversaw operations at the Grand Forks FEMA park.

"We never had a complaint on those at all," he said. "People really enjoyed them, except that some complained they were always cold. They were built down South and not suited to our climate.

"Maybe, as breezy as those things were, people never got to smell any fumes."

Lois Lee doesn't remember formaldehyde fumes, but she said she did get sick from mold in the FEMA trailer she and her late husband, Don, lived in from August 1997 to May 1998 in East Grand Forks.

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"They told me to wash it with Hi-lex (bleach)," she said, "and I had to keep doing that. When we left, they took the trailer away the same day. It was a newer one. My daughter had an older one down the road, and she had no problems."

Nor did Gladys Schmalenberg, one of the first people to move into the East Grand Forks park - and the last to leave.

"It was kind of cold, so I made awnings for it," she said.

Schmalenberg said she heard about the problems with FEMA trailers on the Gulf, and it caused her "to think how lucky I was not to get sick."

Only in the Gulf

FEMA trailers also were distributed to flood victims in Roseau, Minn., in 2002 and in southern Minnesota last year. Many of those used in the Grand Forks area were later donated to state and local agencies.

"I don't recall (the formaldehyde problem) occurring in any other instance" than in the Gulf, said Jerry DeFlice, a FEMA spokesman in Denver.

"I can say with reasonable confidence there wasn't a big number of complaints" about sickening fumes in the Red River Valley trailers, he said. "Maybe there were incidental problems, but I don't recall any."

Neither does Barb Sturner, another FEMA employee who has spent considerable time in Grand Forks and wrote a book about the valley's flood recovery effort for the agency.

She is in New Orleans this week, helping with the response to the formaldehyde concerns there.

"I don't remember hearing about it any place but here," she said.

Officials at the Grand Forks Public Health Department said the agency was not asked to perform air-quality tests on trailers and has no record of formaldehyde fume complaints.

Sandy Washek, of the North Dakota Department of Health in Bismarck, said the department has "never been asked to go in and check for formaldehyde" in FEMA trailers.

"The only complaint we had - and the only investigation we went out on - had to do with too many people living in some trailers," Washek said. "Those trailers were built for a family of five or six, and you'd walk into some of them and find 15 or 20 people living there."

Reach Haga at 780-1102, (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or chaga@gfherald.com .

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