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Toxic Trailers May Be Bound For Mexicali

(A collaboration between KPBS and Casas Contaminadas Podrian Llegar A Mexicali)

The Sierra Club is concerned some of the earthquake aid on its way to Mexicali may be hazardous to people's health. Baja California officials say 200 travel trailers are scheduled to arrive next week to house earthquake victims.

Baja California's Governor, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan, has said housing the 25,000 people the quake left homeless is his top priority.


Shortly after the quake, he told families at shelters around the Mexicali Valley that he's working to buy FEMA trailers left over from Hurricane Katrina. On Televisa's statewide evening newscast, Osuna Millan said the trailers can house eight people. "The US government bought the trailers after Hurricane Katrina. They have a stove and a sink. This is the living room," he said pointing to photos of trailers.

Becky Gillette with the Sierra Club, says FEMA's Katrina trailers also come with high levels of toxic chemicals. She tested FEMA's Katrina trailers five years ago, after people living in them developed coughs, respiratory problems and even nosebleeds. Gillette found that more than 80 percent of the mobile homes had formaldehyde levels higher than the recommended limit.

"Three years after people moved in, FEMA confirmed mold and formaldehyde and moved people out. We're going to send them to Mexico? That could be a bad situation," says Gillette.

Long term exposure to formaldehyde may cause cancer and respiratory disease. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

"Hot temperatures cause trailers to emit more formaldehyde. If the sun hits these trailers, it's even more of a concern," says Gillette.


Temperatures in the Mexicali Valley soar into the hundreds starting in June. The Valley is where Baja California's Governor Osuna Millan announced he plans to house 200 people in trailers in a week. However, his Cabinet Director, Adan Lopez Camacho, later said it will be only 70 to 100 trailers.

KPBS and have not been able to confirm if the trailers Baja California Government officials plan to deliver to the Mexicali Valley next week were once FEMA Katrina trailers. Lopez Camacho says, "The U.S. government officials we talked to told us off the record that there has been some controversy regarding possible contamination. I cannot guarantee that some of the trailers we'll deliver were not used in Katrina."

FEMA recently sold about 120,000 Katrina trailers to private bidders. The US federal agency told buyers they could not resell the trailers as housing.

During the last month, hundreds of the mobile homes have been listed on eBay. Many sellers offer rock bottom prices.

The Arkansas Attorney General was so concerned about the trailers, he issued a consumer alert. "Proceed with caution, extreme caution if you are tempted to respond to what appears to be an attractive offer for a travel trailer," the alert says.

Meanwhile, Baja California's Cabinet Director, Lopez Camacho, says trailer dealers from around the United States, including Arkansas, have offered to help Baja California officials buy trailers. "For our part, we're doing our analysis," says Lopez Camacho.

Information On Formaldehyde In Spanish:

El formaldehído, University of California at Davis, Environmental Toxicology

Lo que debe saber sobre el formaldehído en las casas rodantes (What You Should Know about Formaldehyde in Mobile Homes), FEMA

Niveles de formaldehído en Remolques de FEMA: Resumen del studio del CDC en la Costa del Golfo (Formaldehyde Levels in FEMA-Supplied Trailers: Summary of a CDC Study in the Gulf Coast Region), FEMA

El Congreso Investiga los Peligrosos Niveles de Formaldehído en los Remolques-Vivienda de FEMA, Sierra Club