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Consumer groups, mobile-home builders debate formaldehyde issue

Consumer advocates are pressing the federal government to warn consumers about formaldehyde gas seepage in mobile homes. The Consumer Federation of America recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that the gas, which is given off by materials used to construct mobile homes, could pose serious health hazards.

A spokesman for a mobile-home manufacturers trade association called the complaint ''extremely inaccurate and overstated.''

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A health official in Hillsborough County, Fla., agrees that the complaint was overstated, but notes that formaldehyde poisoning is a problem. According to scientists, the chemical most seriously affects the very young and the elderly. Those people - retired people and young families with toddlers - make up the majority of the nation's 11 million mobile-home residents.

Formaldehyde is a common chemical found in thousands of products. It is used as the binder in particle board and plywood, inexpensive building materials that are used in mobile homes. Small amounts of formaldehyde gas seep out of those materials for years after the homes are built.

Plywood and particle board are used in all types of construction, but mobile homes may have a particular problem with formaldehyde because they are so compact. And since 1976 they have had to meet strict federal energy-efficiency requirements that cut down on their ventilation.

Patrick DeChiro, spokesman for the Manufactured Housing Institute, questions the scientific basis of the Consumer Federation's charge that formaldehyde causes cancer. ''The rats used in their study came under extremely high levels of formaldehyde for 24 hours a day,'' Mr. DeChiro says. ''There's no way humans could stand even a fraction of that level.''

George Dunson, a Hillsborough public health physician, says when mobile-home residents call him to complain of the symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning, he tells them to open their windows and air out the home for at least an hour a day.

He said the amount of formaldehyde coming out of the materials used to construct mobile homes is, by itself, not high enough to irritate people unless they are sensitive to it. But he suggests owners throw away all cake-type deodorizers and mildew preventers.

''This is the major problem with formaldehyde,'' he says. ''Room deodorizers giving off formaldehyde gas in tightly sealed mobile homes.''

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Kelly Mione, a spokesman for the Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida, says he would like to see a federal standard to limit the amount of formaldehyde gas given off in a mobile homes.

DeChiro says his organization is asking mobile-home manufacturers to voluntarily put warnings on new homes advising people that they may have contact with formaldehyde gas.

Dunson suggests other ways mobile-home dwellers can cut down on sources of formaldehyde gas:

* Do not allow anyone to smoke in the home. Cigarette smoke contains 20 parts per million of the gas.

* Do not use spray room fresheners or hair sprays without good ventilation.

* If you cook with natural gas, be sure an exhaust fan is on.

* Spray a clear, acrylic varnish on any unpainted pressboard or particleboard in the home to reduce formaldehyde vapors.

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