Toxic FEMAldehyde. What now?

Grim news for those people continuing to suffer from Hurricane Katrina–tests show that the FEMA trailers have high levels of formaldehyde, with the CDC urging FEMA to move families out of the trailers as soon as possible. This Newsweekmobilehome.jpg article is a review of the issue. Unfortunately, no one seems to be rushing to answer the question of “what now?” to all the families affected. One reason is because the risks of exposure to formaldehyde aren’t completely known. People who smoke, for example, are inhaling formaldehyde from their cigarettes, but the independent risks of formaldehyde aren’t clear. Most of the studies of formaldehyde exposure are in people exposed to it through their jobs. A nice review is here at the National Cancer Institute. Reading this kind of thing can be unnecessarily alarming, though, when you can’t do anything to change the past. But I, for one, think it’s only wise to give people at risk a “heads up” about what kind of weird symptoms you might want to pay attention to if you’ve had a significant formaldehyde exposure. So here’s a Doc Gurley Major Symptom List and Tip Sheet to know and pass along to anyone that might be affected by toxic FEMAldehyde fumes.

Post-Exposure Tips:

1) If you’ve had a significant formaldehyde exposure, make sure you let your healthcare provider know–not just now, but decades in the future, kind of like keeping an “allergy” listed on your chart. Based on the few studies of formaldehyde exposure, some of the major risks don’t show up for years.

2) Be healthy! If you’ve had an exposure, it’s easy to get discouraged or depressed, and, maybe, indulge in some not so healthy behaviors (or is Doc Gurley the only one who would want to hole up in a room for a year with a truckload of chocolate?). Try to channel your frustration and anger into an “I’ll show you” kind of mentality. Stop smoking (or don’t start!), get moving, and eat well. None of these things can guarantee health long-term, but it’s good to stack the odds in your favor as much as you can. Remember–living well is the best revenge!

3 ) If you get a worrisome symptom that is not listed anywhere, be persistent about your care. You want to make sure you’re being taken care of by someone you trust–someone who’ll do a thorough check-out. Not everything is known about this kind of situation. But living with uncertainty is a really hard, energy-sapping thing. Try to move on and be your wonderful self.

Practical Symptoms To Notice

Studies of long-term formaldehyde exposure are linked to naso-pharyngeal cancers, myeloid leukemias, brain cancers and (less strongly linked) to lung cancer. What do these diseases mean in terms of symptoms?

Watch Out For:

1) A lump in your neck or jaw area. If you get a cold and a lump that is tender and goes away when the cold goes away–that’s probably okay. Instead, what we’re talking about is a lump (hard or soft, tender or non-tender) that wants to hang around for weeks and weeks. Get that guy looked at!

2) Nosebleeds. If you start to get nosebleeds, make sure your healthcare provider knows you had a significant formaldehyde exposure. Make sure someone takes a look up there with a little camera on a tube, and, if there’s anything weird, does a biopsy. Especially get help if you get a nosebleed that starts as a two-nostril nosebleed (which means the source of bleeding is way back toward the back of your throat) or one that just won’t stop.

3) Sores in your mouth or throat that won’t heal. We’re not talking about those little mouth ulcers you get with a cold that go away in a couple of days. Again, pay attention to the sore that wants to hang around. Get in the habit of taking a peek in your mouth in the mirror after you brush and spit–back of the throat, under the tongue, sides of the tongue. If you find something that’s still there two weeks later–it’s time for a doctor visit, and, possibly, a biopsy.

4) Sluggishness, unintended weight loss, fatigue–or persistently abnormal blood counts. Chronic myeloid leukemia is a simmering kind of leukemia, and if you have a doctor who says, sure, your blood counts are a little off, but we’ll just watch it, that’s when you want to re-remind them of your formaldehyde exposure.

Symptoms That Grab You

For brain cancers, acute myeloid leukemias and lung cancer, the symptoms tend to be progressive.

5) Fevers, weird infections, night sweats–Acute myeloid leukemia is harder to ignore–it tends to come on more suddenly than chronic myeloid leukemia, and with a vengeance. One blood test usually shows that something isn’t right.

6) New, wicked headaches (especially with nausea), problems with thinking, or weakness, numbness, or seizures–malignant brain cancers are usually discovered pretty quickly. If you’re worried about headaches that persist, again, remind your doctor of your formaldehyde exposure–one clear brain scan is very reassuring.

7) Weight loss, shortness of breath, coughing up flecks of blood–lung cancer is a horrible disease, and, unfortunately, once you get symptoms like these, it’s usually pretty advanced. The best thing you can do for yourself if you’ve had a big formaldehyde exposure, is make sure you don’t add to your risk by smoking (anything!). Talk to your doctor about ways to quit cigarettes–some aids can really help.

To all those Katrina trailer families, as we say in the South, bless your heart…

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