Nearly 11 years after the survivors of Hurricane Katrina began blaming their FEMA trailers for their health problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new rule addressing what is believed to have been the main cause of their suffering — formaldehyde.
The final rule, announced July 27, limits the emissions of formaldehyde vapors for composite wood products used to make kitchen cabinets, furniture and flooring. Motivated in part by the high levels of fumes found in many of the recreational vehicles shipped to the Gulf Coast after the 2005 hurricane, the new standards are touted as protecting the public from harmful exposure to the chemical.
Formaldehyde in the RVs sent to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas to provide temporary housing for displaced residents spawned a series of class actions. Manufacturers, many in northern Indiana, and the contractors who installed the units were named in the slew of complaints.
Similar class actions have been filed against the national retailer Lumber Liquidators with consumers alleging the business deceived them about the level of formaldehyde in laminate flooring boards. The complaints over the RVs have been settled but the lawsuits against Lumber Liquidators continue.
Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the EPA did a “really good job” of creating a new rule that does not overburden small businesses but still protects the public.
“If we had had this rule in place, we wouldn’t have had the problem that led to the FEMA trailers,” he said.
Through the Formaldehyde Emission Standards for Composite Wood Products Act of 2010, Congress limited the off-gassing from products like plywood, medium-density fiberboard and particleboard. The Act adopted the lower formaldehyde standards established by the California Air Resources Board for products sold, supplied, used or manufactured for sale in that state.
Typically, the formaldehyde is in the resin that binds the chips and fibers together in the composite wood products. It is also in the resin used to attach a veneer to some composites.
The emission standards range from 0.05 part per million of formaldehyde for hardwood plywood to 0.13 part per million for thin medium-density fiberboard, according to the EPA. By comparison, FEMA testing determined the mean formaldehyde reading in the Katrina RVs was 0.077 ppm, with levels ranging between 0.003 ppm and 0.59 ppm, according to a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General.
However, New Orleans attorney M. Palmer Lambert, one of the attorneys who represented plaintiffs in the class actions, said the FEMA test results underestimated the level of exposure. By the time the agency began testing in late 2007, the fumes had dissipated.
The DHS report seems to support that contention. It noted early testing done by the local Sierra Club which found only two of 31 trailers testing at or below 0.1 ppm. Also readings taken by Occupational Safety and Health Administration on 100 FEMA trailers in Mississippi found the levels of fumes reaching 0.28 ppm to 0.59 ppm.
The EPA maintains exposure to 0.1 ppm and above will cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the nose and throat, nausea and coughing. The EPA considers exposure to 0.9 ppm or above for more than eight hours in a lifetime is “dangerous,” and says high levels of exposure may cause some types of cancer.
Attorneys connected to the RV industry declined to comment on the new rule. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association said its member manufacturers do not expect the rule to impact their operations. RV makers began using wood products that complied with the CARB standard in 2009.
Among other things, the new federal rule closes a loophole that was in the CARB standard, Neltner said. Specifically, the state policy did not regulate laminated wood products, which freed the veneer applicators from having to use glue that complied.
Under the EPA rule, laminated woods must meet the new standards by 2024. This puts pressure on the adhesive manufacturers to develop a resin that uses less formaldehyde. Although some formaldehyde-free glues are already on the market, Neltner said manufactures do not use them because they can discolor the veneer.
Environmental activist and freelance journalist Becky Gillette is happy the federal government has finally clamped down on formaldehyde. Manufacturers will now have to adhere to an emissions law where previously no air quality standard existed, which left consumers with little recourse.
Still she worries about the EPA’s ability to enforce the new emission limits. The agency’s funding has been a favorite target of Congressional budget cuts.
Toxins after Katrina
As the former chair of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, Gillette worked in the mess left behind by Katrina. Fielding calls and hearing stories about people living in the RVs suffering from nosebleeds, respiratory problems, headaches and a few who had new cancer diagnoses, she led the effort to test the air inside the units.
In its report, the DHS faulted the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the formaldehyde crisis. Indications of possible formaldehyde problems first surfaced in October 2005, but FEMA did not begin testing the RVs until December 2007.
The class action filed by roughly 55,000 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas against the RV manufacturers and FEMA contractors was settled in 2012 for just under $43 million. Attorney fees were expected to gobble up to 48 percent, leaving plaintiffs with just a few hundred dollars each on average.
Lambert said the plaintiffs were hindered by the late testing of the indoor air quality of the RVs. Proving the levels exceeded accepted health standards was difficult because the readings were taken after the levels had decreased significantly. Consequently, the experts disagreed whether the health problems could be linked to exposure to formaldehyde.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attorney James Percy represented the manufacturers in the settlement conference with the plaintiffs. He did not return a call seeking comment.
Customers feeling deceived
The multidistrict litigation pending against Lumber Liquidators will not be affected by the new rule. In that suit, consumers claim the retailer falsely labeled wood flooring as being compliant with CARB standards. Lumber Liquidators filed a motion for summary judgment Aug. 1, asserting the plaintiffs cannot show they were deceived.
A call to Lumber Liquidators was not returned.
Cohen & Malad LLP was among the firms that filed complaints against the retailer. Lynn Toops, partner at the Indianapolis firm, said the rule is an important first step because it recognizes how serious formaldehyde emissions are.
“I’m happy to see there is something being done at the national level so that California no longer has the unique title of being the only state addressing this issue,” she said.
Despite the long fight over formaldehyde, Gillette doubts the new rule will get much attention. And she noted complaints are still surfacing among mobile home owners even though the Department of Housing and Urban Development imposed emission standards on the manufactured housing industry in the 1980s.
Her view of formaldehyde remains unchanged. “There is no safe level,” she said.•