Most people like the smell of a new car. People like it so much companies sell artificial "New Car Smell".
New trailers also have a distinctive smell as well. It not so comforting. It is a noxious smell that irritates the nose and causes the eyes to burn.
News reports have linked it to formylghide, the stuff they used to preserve the dead worms and grasshoppers I dissected in High School biology. If I Recall Correctly it smelled different. I think if anyone were to analyze the trailer odor, they would find it is made up of many things. These things are generally called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Volatile because they evaporate at normal ambient temperatures.
Gentilly Girl posted to that she couldn't live in her trailer due to the fumes. Shortly afterwards I got an email from another blogger asking for comment on formylghide, in response to a news story.
Technically the process is called out gassing. All new synthetic products exhibit this behavior to some extent. Plastics are the most easily identified, synthetic textiles and plastic foams are most common and most voluminous. Virtually every material used in a trailer will have some level of VOCs in it.
The condition is also easy to cure in most cases, especially in summer in New Orleans. It is even easier in the summer in Arizona where humidity is lower.
As Far As I Can Tell there are no absolute levels of exposure which guarantee that every individual will be free of any reaction. The best that can be done is to limit exposure to volatile organic compounds and make sure that all new materials have plenty of opportunity to out gas. One technique is to "bake out" the structure, by running the heat as high as possible, with as much outside ventilation as possible. Simply opening the windows has a similar effect, although it takes longer.
The good news is the the once the trailer is manufactured the amount of VOCs in it is fixed and if ventilated they will dissipate in time. How long it takes depends on a lot of things. One article I saw said the New Car Smell is reduced by 90% in 30 days. At the Geek Diner II the other night I was in another FEMA trailer it didn't have any apparent smell. Today I was in my neighbors unoccupied trailer. It still has the smell, after sitting unoccupied for months.
I have read reports that claim FEMA trailers are especially susceptible to this because of the speed at which they were manufactured and the other trailers do not have this problem. This is simply not true. I was in a new trailer on a dealers lot recently. The smell was obvious and caused my eyes to water. It is likely that trailers sold through dealers have an opportunity out gas while in the sales pipe line. Frequently dealers have their entire inventory open for inspection, so there is the opportunity for some of the smell to dissipate. I do wonder why FEMA does not have pre-delivery ventilation procedures in place. Opening the windows while the trailer is being prepared, transported or set up would go a long way. Informing residents on delivery would be advisable. None of that seems to be happening.
When we got our trailer it was pretty noxious. When I entered after it had been closed up for a few days my eyes would tear. Opening the windows would dissipate the smell within a few minutes. Fortunately we got our trailer during the fall and the weather was mild. We opened the windows whenever we could. I slept in it with the windows open when the temperature was moderate or even cool. Today after several months there is no longer any noticeable odor.
I have noticed that many of the news reports on this issue cite various "acceptable" levels for formalghyde exposure. These levels are not really applicable to trailers. The exposures cited are generally occupational exposure levels and anticipate many years of exposure at those level. Even if someone lived in a trailer for years the level would steadily drop. On The Other Hand some trailer residents may be more sensitive to environmental conditions (children, the elderly, pregnant women) and the trailer conditions are more complex than simply formilghyde. The trailer smell includes a much more complex mix of VOC's.