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How healthy is your home? – FEMA brought to task over post-Katrina trailers

Outwardly, we employ all manner of different techniques to make our homes look the very best – wallpaper, paint techniques, stencilling, unusual furniture and furnishings for example – but underneath this bold exterior, the question remains: how healthy is your home?

This is clearly a question that is important to many homeowners, with programmes like Channel 4's 'How Clean is Your House?' making stars of presenters Kim and Aggie and in turn raising awareness of the issue of the healthiness of houses. Through such popular programmes it has come to be realised that a home needs to be not just outwardly beautiful, it has to be healthy too, and certainly not have a negative effect on occupants' health. With illnesses such as eczema and asthma being linked to environmental factors such as dust, detergents and mold, it is important to dig beneath the surface of a house to eliminate any potential factors that could be contributing to household illnesses and to try and make the home once again the bastion of wellbeing that it once was.

This is an issue that has become very relevant in the southern state of Mississippi in the USA. Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 which brought devastation to many parts of this region, especially along coastal stretches, the government body FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) issued around 100,000 trailers to people displaced from their homes in the aftermath of the storms. Only meant as a temporary measure and built to last approximately a year, three years on around 15,000 of these homes remain due to a lack of built and affordable housing. Not only a problem because these families, often with young children, do not have a permanent dwelling to call home, these trailer-properties are also at the centre of a growing public health concern. 

Since 2005, FEMA has received more than 11,000 complaints from residents who claim that their trailer is making them sick. With reported symptoms including headaches, running noses, breathing difficulties and fatigue, the infamous formaldehyde is reportedly to blame. This chemical is also a known carcinogenic (according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)) and therefore there have been great concerns raised over the safety of the government owned properties. This lead to an independent test being conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from December 2007 to January 2008 in which a sample of 519 inhabited trailers in the Gulf Coast area were tested and the report results did not make for welcome reading,

"Based on what we found and on scientific reports about health effects linked with formaldehyde exposure, CDC recommended that FEMA move residents of the Gulf Coast area displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita out of travel trailers and mobile homes". This is due to findings of average levels of formaldehyde in the trailers some four times higher than usual: readings of 77 ppb (parts per billion) compared to a normal home reading of 10-20 ppb, all of those studied having some readings that would have an effect on sensitive people and around 5% having levels of an extent to make a healthy adult ill.

These results combined with government-set rules including a limit on formaldehyde releases for mobile homes but not trailers, has lead to a lawsuit being brought against both the trailer manufacturers and FEMA. Not only this but a recently released report by the Children's Health Fund looking at the medical records of 261 children living in a Gulf Coast trailer park has found that 42% had been diagnosed with allergic rhinitis or upper respiratory infection and 24% had a cluster of upper respiratory, allergic and skin problems, thus adding to the case.

It remains to be seen if Republican Henry Waxman is true to say that "no one was looking out for the interests of displaced families living in FEMA trailers," but in the meantime it is hard to ignore the evidence being put forward. However, in true juxtaposition to the findings relating to FEMA trailers, BusinessWeek has recently named Biloxi – home to high numbers of displaced families – as Mississippi's best place to raise children. Based on various factors including affordability, safety, local parks and recreational facilities, being voted family-safe, the city is now is in need of safe and permanent homes for returning residents and those desperate to escape the temporary FEMA trailers.

The building of new homes in the Mississippi area is increasingly more eco-focused as A-list celebrity and charity ambassador Brad Pitt has shown through his commitment to the building of 150 sustainable homes for the citizens of Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans through his Make it Right charity; he visited the neighbourhood on 2nd December where six families have moved into their new homes.