Monday, June 9, 2008

Family felt like 'lab rats' in FEMA trailer

Medical care runs to 4,000 pages, $10,000

It was when the sight of a bloody child became routine that Lindsay Huckabee broke down and cried. She and her husband, Steve, had spent months dealing with "two, three, four nosebleeds a week," in their FEMA mobile home, she said. When it wasn't a nosebleed, one child or another had burning eyes, coughing, congestion and "colds" that wouldn't go away.

The Huckabee children - Vicki, now 13, Caitlin, 9, Lelah, 6, Steven, 4, and Michael, 2 - were regulars at the emergency room from early 2006 onward. Lelah and Michael had surgeries related to chronic breathing problems. Every week, it seemed, at least one child went to the doctor.

"The receptionist knew me by my first name, and I swear she probably knew my voice, too," Huckabee said.

The Huckabees have become icons for a Sierra Club movement that believes formaldehyde fumes in FEMA trailers have caused widespread poisoning of hurricane victims. The organization tested the formaldehyde levels of 69 FEMA trailers. Based on an industrial standard, most tested high, as did the Huckabees'. The Sierra Club is now campaigning for stringent standards on formaldehyde levels in building products, where it is used in glues, resins, particle board and sometimes insulation.

There is no one standard for an acceptable level of formaldehyde exposure. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has one set of standards. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has another. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has another set of standards far below the others. The Huckabees' mobile home tested just above one of OSHA's standards, just below HUD's standard and well above ATSDR's standard.

Several agencies list formaldehyde as a likely carcinogen.

Lindsay has become an erstwhile spokeswoman for the movement, having testified before Congress twice about her family's health issues while living in FEMA trailers, once for House Oversight Committee and again for the Committee for Science and Technology.

The Huckabees' Pass Christian apartment was flooded to the ceiling by Katrina. They received a travel trailer in October 2005, then a mobile home in December 2005. Lindsay went into early labor. Michael was born four weeks prematurely, and within a few days he was congested. For the first two years of his life, she said, he stayed that way. Before FEMA housing, the Huckabees said most illnesses were treated with Tylenol; they didn't chase their children around with anti-bacterial gel or call the doctor for every sniffle.

"I asked my doctor what I was doing wrong. Why couldn't I get my kids healthy and keep them that way?" Lindsay said.

The CDC wrote in its March 2008 FEMA trailer and mobile home assessment "there is no specific level of formaldehyde that separates "safe" from "dangerous." It found although levels of formaldehyde varied from unit to unit of a particular brand, nearly all brands of FEMA housing tested had units with high levels of formaldehyde. Though it did not declare high levels of formaldehyde unsafe, CDC "supported the need to move quickly," and get people out of FEMA housing before summer, as heat can increase formaldehyde fumes.

FEMA set a target date of June 1 to close its travel trailer parks. This phase is done, said spokesperson Eugene Brezany. Eight mobile home parks are still open, and they will be closed by the end of the year. Most of the 6,400 families still in FEMA trailers are on private land.

The hearings at which Lindsay testified were convened after internal e-mails suggested FEMA and the CDC knew the trailers could be contaminated, yet delayed testing and tried to quash the results. This is the most damning thing to the Huckabees - spending extra weeks and months in a trailer the government knew was unsafe.

They have 4,000 pages of medical records. They've spent at least $10,000 out of pocket for what health insurance won't cover. Steve is a surveillance technician at Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis. They believe if the cause of their health problems was not formaldehyde alone, it certainly made things worse.

"I feel like after it was first known that the formaldehyde was a problem, we were lab rats subjected to the toxin, but no one wanted to record the results," Lindsay said.