Something in the air: Baby’s death, ailments spur investigation of formaldehyde levels in Henness Flats apartments |

Something in the air: Baby’s death, ailments spur investigation of formaldehyde levels in Henness Flats apartments

Jenny Goldsmith/Sierra SunCole Johnson, 7, and his mom Tracy Penner stand outside their Henness Flats apartment in Truckee. Penner has decided to move from the factory-built complex due to tests results showing dangerous levels of formaldehyde in the manufactured unit.

The smell inside Tracy Penner’s manufactured apartment resembled the scent of a new car, but with a hint of pungency ” a corrosive finish to a familiar odor.

Penner moved into Truckee’s factory-built Henness Flats Apartments in December 2007, and said it wasn’t long before her nose started to run, her eyes began to burn and her throat felt irritated.

By February, Penner’s health continued to deteriorate. She started waking up from night sweats and incessant vomiting. She checked herself into Tahoe Forest Hospital’s emergency room where she was treated and released, she said.

When two weeks passed with no improvement to her health, Penner said she became increasingly concerned and checked herself back into the hospital.

“They ran a bunch of tests, from x-rays to blood tests, but didn’t find anything,” Penner said. “All I knew was that I felt horrible and I wasn’t getting over it.”

As an in-home caregiver in Truckee, Penner spent most days and nights in March and April outside of her unit, and said it was then she noticed that her puzzling symptoms started to fade.

On May 1 during a brief stop at her apartment, Penner said she encountered a Henness Flats neighbor who claimed to have similar symptoms.

“She mentioned the possibility of formaldehyde,” Penner said of her neighbor. “But at first I didn’t take her seriously.”

One week after the encounter, Penner said her neighbor approached her again, this time with test results from Advanced Chemical Sensors Incorporated ” a Florida-based laboratory that detected dangerous formaldehyde levels in manufactured trailers issued to displaced Hurricane Katrina victims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Tests were conducted in three of the 92 units at Henness Flats, and the results indicated toxic levels of formaldehyde ” a suspected carcinogen ” present in all three apartments, said Becky Gillette, a formaldehyde campaign director with the Sierra Club and driving force behind the Gulf Coast toxic trailer issue.

“To me, there are astounding similarities between what these people in Truckee are facing and what Katrina victims faced,” Gillette said.

Once word began to spread among Henness Flats tenants over the possibility of formaldehyde poisoning, the calls started pouring in, said Gillette, who organized a Web site for formaldehyde victims during the Katrina trailer epidemic.

“You have to understand how terrifying this is for people,” she said.

Using a $4,000 grant from the Sierra Club, Gillette issued five more test kits from the same company to concerned Henness Flats residents, including Penner, but results are still pending, she said.

The test is performed by hanging a special cotton-filled vile from the ceiling or wall for a few hours to several days. If formaldehyde is present, the cotton will absorb the it, and the sample is then sent back to the laboratory for analysis, said Dr. Jack Thrasher, a Minden, Nev.-based toxicologist and Technical Director of the National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation in Las Vegas.

“This method is being used industry-wide as a very simple, straight-forward way to monitor formaldehyde,” said Thrasher, who used the same company and test in the early 1980s to expose toxic levels of formaldehyde in Southern California trailers.

On Wednesday, Penner’s test results were returned and indicated elevated levels of formaldehyde at a concentration of 0.177 parts per million ” “a dangerously high level,” Thrasher said.

There are no federal standards for acceptable levels, but the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry has recommended minimum risk levels depending on the duration of exposure, Thrasher said.

For example, the minimum risk level for a healthy adult is 0.03 parts per million during a period of 14 to 365 days, he said.

“All the results were considerably high, especially for infants,” Thrasher said. “From my understanding, there are many children and pregnant women in this building and formaldehyde can be very toxic to a developing fetus.”

Thrasher said concentration levels were found at 0.076 parts per million in another Henness Flats unit where an infant died recently. The cause of death was initially determined to be Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, however, the matter has been returned to the Nevada County Coroner for an additional autopsy, said Truckee Police Lt. Harwood Mitchell.

In response to the concerns over formaldehyde concentrations, the Henness Flats developer, Pacific West Communities, issued a memorandum to all residents on May 9 stating they would conduct a “broader analysis of the units within the community … to determine whether there are, in fact, any elevated levels of formaldehyde.”

“We’re not going to make any assumptions at this point,” said property manager Duane Jakob. “We’ll do whatever is necessary to correct the problem, if there is a problem.”

Jakob said the owner has hired an environmental consultant to perform further formaldehyde testing, but the results are unknown at this time.

The Nevada County Department of Environmental Health has also been advised. The department is conducting an investigation into the situation, said Director Wesley Nicks.

“We’re tackling it, we’re concerned, but there are no specific regulations and it is unclear what role Environmental Health would play,” Nicks said.

Meanwhile, Thrasher said he will hold a meeting for concerned Henness Flats residents on Saturday at the Truckee River Regional Park to discuss the source, health effects and possible solutions.

“I think the next step for these people is to get out of the building,” Thrasher said.

But some residents are a step ahead of Thrasher.

After reviewing the test results from her unit, Penner said she has decided to seek out a new home for herself and her 7-year-old son.

“I don’t see it becoming safe anytime in the near future,” Penner said Thursday. “I’m out of there and I’m never going back.”

Information provided by

– Water eyes

– Burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat

– Nausea

– difficulty breathing

– headaches

– fatigue

– asthma attacks

– pulmonary edema

– skin rashes

– irregular heartbeat

– impairment of dexterity

– possibly cancer or death

Formaldehyde is a colorless gas and is a commonly used chemical in a variety of products and industries, such as the construction market, which uses urea-formaldehyde resins as an adhesive in making pressed wood products, said Dr. Jack Thrasher, toxicologist and Technical Director of the National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation in Las Vegas.

The United States does not have any standards for formaldehyde in residential indoor air, but the suggested minimum risk level for an average adult is 0.04 parts per million for a one to 14 day exposure period.

However, factors such as ventilation, sunlight and room temperature can alter the concentrations of formaldehyde, Thrasher said.

For a test to be accurate, windows must be closed and the indoor temperature must be at an average setting, he said.

Thrasher said he will meet with concerned Henness Flats residents at 12 p.m. on Saturday at the Truckee River Regional Park to discuss potential sources, health effects and solutions.

He said the formaldehyde source at Henness Flats would likely be from the particle board used to construct the manufactured building, and he hopes he’ll be able to determine where the particle board originally came from on Saturday.

“It’s imported from Canada, China and it’s also constructed in the U.S.,” Thrasher said. “If it’s from China, that’s the worst on the market.”

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