This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will begin testing for toxins in the 56,000 FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana. The testing will first start in New Orleans, then move to Mississippi on Thursday.
While the formaldehyde issue may seem new to national attention, Katrina victims in South Mississippi and the local Sierra Club have been tracking the toxin for more than a year. WLOX News first told you about the problem in March 2006.
Katrina destroyed Lou Finkle's Gulfport home. He believes the toxic levels of formaldehyde in his FEMA travel trailer damaged his health.
"It wasn't debilitating health, it was just the normal coughing, wheezing, a lot of sinus," Finkle said.
Finkle's trailer is one of the FEMA travel trailers the state Sierra Club has tested for formaldehyde levels.
"The findings were that I had 2.8 times the maximum level of formaldehyde inside the trailer. And that was a long time after, a year and a quarter, after I received it," Finkle said.
"Eighty-eight percent of the campers we tested were over the limit for formaldehyde. So that mainly means nine out of ten of the trailers that we tested were over the limit for formaldehyde," said Becky Gillette, Vice Chair of the Mississippi Sierra Club.
Gillette says the formaldehyde issue in travel trailers is not new. But until Katrina, no one thought the part time shelters would become full time homes for thousands.
"The one thing about that limit, that limit is set for healthy adult workers in a work place for eight hours a day. It's not set for people living in a FEMA trailer 24 hours a day. It's not set for elderly people. It's not set for babies and young children," Gillette said.
Sierra Club leaders say the CDC's testing is too little, too late.
"We feel that FEMA needs to pay for their health care bills. They need to do an honest job of evaluating the problem and fixing it immediately. Let's not let these people go another year living in this toxic environment," Gillette said.
Sierra Club leaders are also urging FEMA not to sell or distribute any more trailers until they've been tested for formaldehyde.
A news release from FEMA on Tuesday said, "FEMA officials are reviewing a number of policies related to travel trailers, including the status of sales and donations. FEMA intends to announce interim changes to these policies and will notify the media as soon as decisions are made."
FEMA officials say there's no word yet on just how many trailers the CDC will be testing or for how long.
Signs of formaldehyde poising include burning eyes, coughing, chest congestion, and difficulty breathing.