For the past year and a half, Jakob Rosenzweig and I have been using data acquired by way of Freedom of Information Act requests to map the resale of over 150,000 FEMA trailers. Maps like this one of trailer sales in 2010 are illuminating but only scratch the surface as the trailers were sold in huge lots to private resellers. They tell us more about where rural entrepreneurs thought they could make money selling these units than about the people who end up owning them. As a result of the way in which they were sold, it is nearly impossible to map out individual FEMA trailer owners with government data. We are currently developing a website to open up our data and track down individual trailers with user-generated information, utilizing unique VIN numbers to track trailers as they change hands. More news on this in the coming weeks and month.
The Lens: The Lens & University of Oxford to launch #trailertrack search through the Southeast this weekend
Remember back in May of last year, when The Lens reported that the same FEMA trailers that once housed victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita were being resold Alabama as cheap housing for people displaced after tornadoes destroyed residential areas in 2011?
Our investigation found that…
The indoor air quality of a home, particularly a mobile home, is not a static thing. Chemical levels increase as the sun rises, and fall in the late afternoon as temperatures decrease with the setting sun. Like human activity, the chemical off-gassing activity of the wood and synthetic products that make up and fill your home are influenced by heat. “You can tell time by how the formaldehyde level in a home changes over the course of the day,” an industrial hygienist told me this summer. In addition to daily temperature changes, seasonal temperature change and ventilation have dramatic impacts on indoor chemical levels. A single number produced by a formaldehyde test is just a glimpse of a larger, rolling landscape of exposure.
Brooke and Ronnie (pseudonyms), of Picayune, Mississippi, are all too aware of the variability of formaldehyde test results. After their home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, FEMA provided them with a mobile home. In 2008, Brooke, 53, and Ronnie, 63, lived off social security and retirement benefits and couldn’t afford to move into a more permanent dwelling. Conveniently, FEMA offered to sell them their emergency housing unit for the tidy price of $5, with the stipulation that the mobile home would be tested for formaldehyde before finalizing the transaction.
FEMA’s first formaldehyde test, Ronnie reports, yielded a result of 77 parts per billion (ppb). Closer to the sale date, FEMA came back in February and asked that that all the windows and doors be opened for the test. “We’re going to let it cool down. We want it aired out,” Ronnie was told over the phone. Brooke and Ronnie sat quietly in coats and gloves on the couch as the test was administered. The result was 17 ppb, low enough for the sale to go through. Today, they’re still there.
In August of 2010 CNN tested their home with a 24-hour badge and got a result of 117 ppb. Last month I tested the trailer at approximately 74 degrees Fahrenheit. I used four different sorbent materials (the substances used to collect the formaldehyde) during a 1-hour test and produced a result of 105.69 ppb.
The level of formaldehyde exposure deemed “unsafe” is hotly debated, as the stakes are high for governmentally regulated industry and the defendants of toxic tort cases. In short measure I will post a run-down of formaldehyde’s contested regulatory and advisory levels. As for now, I’ll just note that the average formaldehyde level in manufactured homes ranges from 15.5 ppb (CDC, PDF) to 36.3 ppb (California’s Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment, PDF)—about four times higher than those of conventional homes.
Since moving into the trailer Brooke and Ronnie have experienced a slew of health problems, ranging from eye, respiratory tract and skin irritation to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and the untimely death of pets. Additionally, Brooke’s dental health has deteriorated, “My teeth have been getting bad, just crumbling out of my mouth. This one [pointing to a premolar on her left jaw] is gradually crumbling and breaking off. It’s crumbling from the inside.” Sitting cross-legged on their bed in the living room—the electrical outlets in the bedroom have long since stopped working— she explains, “[My dentists] can’t say ‘yes’ and they can’t say ‘no’ but they say that the formaldehyde is a very good possibility of a cause… and they way that it is happening, its not just rotting and falling out, its good teeth…” Brooke has also developed depression after years in the mobile home, in part she says, because she doesn’t want her grandchildren to visit for fear that they would be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.
Between the time I tested their trailer and called to report the findings, their Black Cocker Spaniel died of kidney, liver and bladder cancer. “Same as the other two before her,” Ronnie told me over the phone. I could almost hear him shaking his head. While Ronnie was glad to have yet another point of data plotted, these tests render an understanding of the chemically infused nature of his home that he has known for years, crystallized by the ultimate register: the manifold symptoms of himself, his wife and their dogs.
Delilah (a pseudonym) stands outside of her FEMA mobile home in Indiana as her mother takes me on a tour. After intensifying stomach pains and increasingly ill parents, her doctor mandated that she not return to the “high formaldehyde environment” of the trailer. Delilah has been staying with the neighbors for the past week. Her parent’s bought the mobile home from a local property agent who had in turn bought it from the federal government. It was once surplus emergency housing from hurricane Katrina that grew moldy in a Louisiana staging area. As Delilah later gleefully spins around—with outstretched arms—in the back of her mother’s minivan, she announces, “This could be my new FEMA home.”
In June of 2011 the Indiana Department of Health tested their mobile home for formaldehyde. It registered 0.150 parts per million. As the A/C unit was broken at the time, the house was 92 degrees. This high temperature may have exaggerated the chemical saturation in their home, but certainly not all of this very high reading can be explained away by the heat. This case along with others helped to catalyze the study that will be described in posts to come.