Are FEMA homes sickening residents?

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2008 - 11:42 PM

A local couple's experience raises questions about health risks in mobile homes and trailers provided by the federal agency.


Mike Zumberge and Katy Dokter moved into a FEMA mobile home at the end of December and almost immediately felt ill. They left out of concern for their 2-month-old daughter, Taylor.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Mike Zumberge and Katy Dokter felt fortunate as they moved with their baby daughter into a three-bedroom, fully furnished mobile home just north of St. Paul on Dec. 30.

Three days later -- after they said they developed breathing problems and were told by a doctor to remove their infant from the home -- they felt lucky to escape.

The mobile home was one the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had bought in 2005 to house Hurricane Katrina victims. They've also been used to house people displaced by last August's historic floods in southern Minnesota.

The young couple found themselves swept up in the national controversy over the safety of FEMA mobile homes and towable travel trailers. Many have complained about formaldehyde fumes that were making them sick.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said that the mobile homes have stricter regulations than the travel trailers about allowable formaldehyde levels, and were not believed to be a problem. But Becky Gillette, manager of the Sierra Club's formaldehyde campaign in Arkansas, said that her office has received dozens of complaints from those living in mobile homes and trailers around the country.

People did not suspect that the homes were a problem because they looked "new and nice," she said, but many developed respiratory problems. "The experience of people we've heard from show that it's just as bad in mobile homes," she said.

"There's supposed to be regulations about these sorts of things but they're not being enforced," she said.

Fillmore County officials said they have had no complaints from flood victims living in 93 mobile homes in Rushford and other hard-hit Minnesota cities.

Officials said it's not clear how many of the mobile homes have been distributed for use as low-income housing. At least 10,000 of the travel trailers have been sold.

At the heart of the controversy is a wood preservative used in glue that bonds particle board, flooring and other construction materials. When it accumulates in spaces without enough ventilation, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems, and long-term exposure has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, allergies and even cancer.

When concerns about the fumes were first raised in 2006, FEMA denied that the housing posed any risk as long as proper ventilation was provided. But last month, the agency decided to buy back travel trailers because of "possible adverse health effects." The refund program also applies to mobile homes, a FEMA spokesman said, and the agency is now testing the air in both kinds of units.

The owner of the mobile home briefly occupied by Zumberge and Dokter is planning to test the air inside before renting it to anyone else.

The couple knew nothing of the health concerns at the end of December, when they signed a lease to live in the home, which recently had been trucked to the Paul Revere Cooperative mobile home park in Lexington, about 10 miles north of the Twin Cities.

The mobile home was one of six transported to the mobile home park by Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund, a Minneapolis organization that helps low-income communities to form cooperatives and to become more self-sufficient.

FEMA donated the mobile homes to Northcountry, which paid $17,000 each to move two homes from Selma, Alabama and four from Hope, Arkansas, to Lexington, said Warren Kramer, Northcountry's director of housing development.

Zumberge said his new home had a "real strong new smell to it," but he didn't think anything of it because the home had never been lived in before.

Within a few hours, Dokter developed a sore throat. On New Year's Eve, the couple celebrated with Zumberge's brother and a friend.

"Come New Year's Day, we started feeling just horrible," Dokter said. "I was standing at the sink doing dishes and all of a sudden I had this pain right over my heart and I really thought I should be going to the emergency room because I was having a heart attack or something."

Zumberge felt a different pain. "It was like something was constantly heavy on my chest," he said. "It was a real solid, hard-to-breathe pain. You could handle it for a little bit but after a while it was just constantly there and got overwhelming and you couldn't take it any more."

Their guests from the night before also had breathing problems, and one had a nosebleed.

Dokter noticed her infant Taylor was sleeping twice as long, for six hours at a stretch. She checked with a doctor, who advised her to remove the baby immediately. Her mother, who also had a strong reaction to the odor, urged them to move out. They left Jan. 2, stayed with parents for a few days and in a motel for a week, and have now moved into a duplex in Forest Lake.

Kramer said he was surprised to hear the family had moved out so quickly, and said their situation seems to be a case of individuals who were probably very sensitive to odors.

Kramer declined to allow a reporter to inspect any of the six units, two of which are occupied. He said the mobile home's air quality will be tested to be sure it's safe. "Certainly health concerns are paramount, and we want to make sure that it's all right, and if it's not, we'll have to deal with it," he said. "We're optimistic that this is going to work out OK."

Phone messages to renters in one of the other units were not returned. Kramer said those living in the two homes have not complained of odors.

FEMA purchased about 145,000 travel trailers and mobile homes in no-bid contracts for hurricane victims in 2005, said spokesman McIntyre.

After some of the trailers had been used and were no longer needed in Gulf Coast states, FEMA began selling them at an average price of $6,396, a large discount, in July 2006 through the General Services Administration.

After Congress began investigating complaints about formaldehyde, FEMA suspended sales last July. However, the agency continued to deliver mobile homes to disaster scenes and provided surplus units to eligible nonprofits. Gillette of the Sierra Club said she's not surprised Minnesota flood victims have not complained about the homes. She said many who live in FEMA trailers or mobile homes don't want to complain because they have no other housing options, and are afraid of losing what they have.

Zumberge said the ordeal continues to complicate the couple's lives. "My aunt gave us money to move in there, and we've got to pay her back when we get our tax-return money," he said. "My dad tells me I'm a disappointment because I'm having hard times in life. There's extra stress that it brings on to our entire families, and then gives us a bad name in the family."

Staff writer Maria Baca contributed to this story. Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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