FEMA Trailers Optimizing Formaldehyde Exposure


If a designer of emergency housing set out to expose climate refugees to as much formaldehyde as possible, what would he do? First off, he might cover as much interior surface area as possible with particleboard and composites heavily laced with urea formaldehyde resins and glues: building envelope, doors, flooring...even furniture. Then, he would increase the internal wall surface area to volume ratio as much as possible: like in a trailer. Park those trailers out in the southern sun, where the heat will "bake" off formaldehyde gas at the highest possible rate, and you have a recipe for optimum exposure. Well almost optimum. To get it absolutely as high as possible, you want to ensure that the residents of said trailers are going to spend as much time as possible inside: dislocated persons without jobs would be perfect. Per an article in The Nation, this goal has already been achieved by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): "Along the Gulf Coast, in the towns and fishing villages from New Orleans to Mobile, survivors of Hurricane Katrina are suffering from a constellation of similar health problems. They wake up wheezing, coughing and gasping for breath. Their eyes burn; their heads ache; they feel tired, lethargic. Nosebleeds are common, as are sinus infections and asthma attacks. Children and seniors are most severely afflicted, but no one is immune The people suffering from these illnesses live in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration."

"An estimated 275,000 Americans are living in more than 102,000 travel trailers and mobile homes that FEMA purchased after Hurricane Katrina The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen". Here's the killer quote:- "Scientists and housing experts believe that the materials used to fabricate the FEMA trailers may have been imported from countries that produce high-formaldehyde-emitting particle board and composite woods".

We highly recommend you take the time to read the full and well-researched article in The Nation. But before you go there, let's see if we can flip the worst case to the best case in trailer design. If you could be on a FEMA advisory board, what design elements and materials would you incorporate in a basic emergency shelter, with the goal of making them as cheaply and quickly as possible? We thought of a few ideas (below). Comment away with your suggestions. Maybe someone in Congress is watching?

How about using standard cargo containers as the base unit? Then, instead of contracting a company to assemble them in a far northern state, bring the cargo containers to a staging area closer to where they will be deployed and hire local people to complete the assembly tasks.

For a green roof:- vacuum-molded roof pans with roll-out pre-seeded beds made of shredded wood and mulch. Gray water and AC condensate discharge is pumped up into the roof pans for evaporative cooling and to water the plants.

For better air circulation and in lieu of air conditioning: a whole-trailer ceiling exhaust fan pulls fresh air in through side windows and doors.

Because the hurricane zone is largely subtropical in climate, insulation requirements can be downplayed and an entire wall can be filled with windows to provide natural light, with solar gain reducing coatings or shades.

Image credit: David Metraux

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