By Naomi Spencer
9 June 2008
Approaching three years since the devastation of the US Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, a public health nightmare continues for thousands of survivors who were housed in government-supplied trailers.
Many of the 300,000 residents who were relocated into housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have developed serious respiratory problems because of excessive levels of the industrial chemical and known carcinogen formaldehyde, according to a report by Spencer Hsu published May 25 in the Washington Post.
Some of the most seriously affected are infants and children, who have developed chronic asthma and require lifelong medical care. The cancer rates will not be known for at least a decade, according to health experts.
While workplace exposure levels are regulated and the health risks associated with high levels are well known, there are no federal regulations on the level of formaldehyde in building materials. The chemical is emitted from glues and sealants used in construction materials such as particleboard, plywood, paneling, and laminated surfaces common in low-end housing units. Formaldehyde is released at the highest levels during warm weather and from newly constructed units.
The Washington Post noted that tests of many FEMA trailers revealed formaldehyde levels drastically exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) 15-minute workplace exposure limit of 100 parts per billion. This is the limit at which serious adverse health symptoms begin to appear, and California state health regulators estimate long-term exposure at this level raises cancer risk by 50 cases per 100,000.
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