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FEMA Warns Workers Not to Enter Stored Trailers

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Good morning.

KATHY LOHR: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've just said there are problems with formaldehyde, is that the reason FEMA is telling workers not top go into those trailers?

LOHR: Well, the latest policy stems from a series of recent e-mails where one FEMA employee was asking whether he could enter one of the stored trailers to close a vent - or whether that was against the FEMA regulations. Now, the head of the Baton Rouge field office responded by saying that nobody was supposed to enter the trailers that had been sitting around out in the sun.

LOHR: And a couple of days later, an industrial hygienist for FEMA, said that FEMA employees should not to enter any of the travel trailers that were being stored. Now a spokesman for FEMA, James Kaplan, told me that formaldehyde levels rise when these trailers are closed up without any ventilation. And he says, that's why they sent the notice to FEMA employees.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the health problem under these conditions?

LOHR: So FEMA spokesman, James Kaplan, says it's only the trailers that have been stored on lots in warm weather for months that are the problem.

JAMES KAPLAN: Something that's been locked up and sealed and stored on the lot for sometimes over a year, doesn't have the opportunity for ventilation than a trailer that is occupied does. And we know it from our testing going back to 2006 when we saw that just simple ventilation can reduce, in most cases, formaldehyde dramatically.

LOHR: That was FEMA spokesman Jim Kaplan, and he says FEMA employees do go into the occupied trailers every day.

MONTAGNE: So, affectively, is FEMA saying these trailers are pretty safe for people who actually live in them?

LOHR: There is no scientific proof that formaldehyde has caused all the symptoms, but many doctors do say formaldehyde does contribute to the symptoms.

MONTAGNE: So, for future disasters, what does this mean for people who might need these trailers?

LOHR: Well, FEMA has decided not to use the trailers for emergency housing. In fact, they sold several thousand of these same trailers earlier this year, to people who were living in them or to businesses, but they're now buying those back because of health concerns. And FEMA says it's going to start testing the trailers that people are still living in, in the next few weeks to determine the levels of formaldehyde and possible safety issues.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kathy Lohr. Thanks very much.

LOHR: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.