Lynn Henderson: Exposure to formaldehyde in a FEMA trailer destroys a young woman’s health and leads to chemical sensitivity and fragrance sensitivity that make it difficult for her to support and care for six family members


Lynn Henderson’s story appears in my my 2008 book titled Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity.

In 2001, I lost everything I owned in a house fire. After that disaster, a relative helped me get a piece of land where I could put a mobile home. I moved into that mobile home in March of 2005, and a few months later Katrina destroyed it. I applied for a FEMA trailer, but I had to wait eighteen months to get it. In the meantime, I lived with relatives.

Life became even more complicated when a cousin whose three little girls I was babysitting died in a car accident in August 2007.  I ended up taking those children into the new FEMA trailer I had just received. The youngest was only six months old when these little girls came to live with me. Now they are seventeen months old, three  years old, and four years old. My eleven-year-old son is also living with me, and my eighteen-year-old daughter lived with me until she graduated from high school last year. We all lived in that FEMA trailer for six months–from August 2007 until February 2008, when the authorities posted a notice on the door saying the trailer should be tested for formaldehyde. When I had it tested, the results that FEMA sent me in a letter dated May 1, 2008, showed an intermediate high level of formaldehyde–130 parts per billion. The results were accompanied by a letter saying that this level of formaldehyde could cause health problems, particularly for small children and the elderly. That letter ended by saying, “FEMA would like to help relocate you into an apartment or other alternative housing.” To my great surprise, the day after I received the letter about the test results I received a second letter from FEMA, this one dated May 8, asking if I would like to buy the trailer for $13,162.

I had never had allergies in my life, but after we moved into the FEMA trailer, I started getting sick. The inside of my nose would itch and my eyes would itch and water. I would just want to claw my eyes and the inside of my nose. I also started getting more headaches. I had never had many headaches before, never even had to take aspirin before.  Now I was having headaches four or five times a week. I also started feeling weak. The three year old especially comes to me and says, “My head is hurting.” The baby has had nosebleeds after she has one of her sneezing fits. My eleven-year-old son is constantly blowing his nose now, and he sounds like his whole head is stuffed up. He didn’t use to have headaches, but he does now.

Another problem that I started having after we moved into the FEMA trailer is that when I start to make a fist, my hands will hurt. I also am having some pain in the calves of my legs and around my back and my shoulder blades. My lower back hurts all the time now. I had no back problems before I started living in the FEMA trailer. In the last six or eight months, I’ve started feeling like I’m falling apart. At thirty-seven I’m having problems that a seventy-year-old woman would have.

The three-year-old and the seventeen-month-old baby are now very sensitive to all sorts of scented products. I started noticing that when I would put on body lotion after my shower and then walk by the baby, she would sneeze over and over again until she was out of breath. Then in a minute she would start sneezing again. I can’t wear perfume any more because it bothers the little girls so much, and they also react to hair spray and cleaning products I use. 

When we received the notice saying that there was a dangerous level of formaldehyde in our FEMA trailer, we moved in with my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother. Now I’m taking care of the three little girls that I hope to adopt, my eleven-year-old son, my grandmother, and an invalid uncle. Given how many people are depending upon me, I’m very concerned about the deterioration in my health since I was exposed to the formaldehyde in the trailer. I work in a sub-type job at a school but have no health insurance. The three little girls I’m raising are on Medicaid, but I can’t afford to buy insurance, so that’s a huge problem.