Mobile Home Syndrome: Engineered Woods and the Making of a New Domestic Ecology in the Post–World War II Era
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Mobile Home Syndrome
Engineered Woods and the Making of a New Domestic Ecology in the Post–World War II Era

In the early months of 1978 W. H. (“Dub”) and Barbara Alley shopped everywhere in Tulsa for a new home. Being renters at the time, the middle-aged couple wanted an affordable place to shelter them from Oklahoma’s hot, humid summers and a house they could move to nearby Keystone Lake when they retired. Most of all, as Dub said, they wanted “something that would be ours.”1 A mobile home was their answer. After looking at many models, the Alleys special-ordered a brand-new, fourteen-foot-by-seventy-six-foot American Mobile Home with custom colors and changes “to make it real livable,” as Barbara said.2 After they moved into the long, narrow, aluminum-clad trailer that had arrived at their rented trailer-park space in April, they proudly sent photographs of every room to their daughter in Arizona to show her “how nice the new home was.”3 They viewed their trailer as a refuge, a sacrosanct space holding nature at bay.

But the dwelling proved to be no sanctuary. The Alleys soon found that their new home betrayed their trust. Immediately upon taking possession of it, the couple noticed a strong, sour, chemical smell. Through the spring they attempted to air out the structure. But when the oppressive heat of summer arrived, it forced them to shut the doors and windows and rely on air conditioning. The odor worsened, burning and stinging the eyes, noses, and throats of inhabitants and guests alike. “If you’d take a deep breath,” [End Page 260] Dub recalled, “it just felt like—I’ve breathed acid fumes, and that’s what it felt like, right on down the windpipe into the lungs, I presume.”4 Then Dub and Barbara began to get sick. Constantly fatigued, irritable, withdrawn, unable to eat, and his skin yellow, Dub reached a crisis point in July 1978, four months after moving into his mobile home. Exhausted, itching and burning all over, nauseated, and constipated, he could no longer work despite physicians’ treatments and medications. As their financial and physical well-being deteriorated, the Alleys realized that it was their home that was harming them. Seeping from the structure’s plywood and particle-board, formaldehyde gas polluted the domestic space. Finally, unable to tolerate their interior environment, the Alleys abandoned their trailer house. “Mobile home syndrome” had driven them from their longed-for domestic haven.5

The threat to the Alleys’ health arose not from a polluted external nature, which so occupied the middle class during the 1960s and 1970s, but instead emanated from the built environment itself. Unknowingly, the couple had entered a new domestic ecosystem created by a revolution in home construction after World War II. The technology of modern houses depended upon cheap, mass-produced, petroleum-based building components that rapidly replaced traditional materials. In particular, engineered woods like plywood and particleboard made possible the construction boom and democratization of ownership that marked the cold war era. These hybrids of synthetic resins and wood fiber made up the very skin of houses—walls, floors, and roofs—enclosing an interior space with human biology at its center. The danger arose when these manufactured materials emitted formaldehyde molecules that penetrated and harmed human tissues. Chemistry had transformed the ecology of the home, placing bodies in jeopardy.6

Formaldehyde fumes escaping from synthetic materials potentially threatened everyone who lived in postwar residences, though working-class Americans faced the highest risks from unhealthy spaces. They inhabited the cheapest dwellings, those that utilized the most artificial components [End Page 261] like plywood and particleboard. Especially vulnerable were families, such as the Alleys, who chose mobile homes and their disproportionately high amount of petrochemically derived products. They had little recourse when chemical sicknesses struck them; dealers had broken no laws and violated no health standards. People like Dub and Barbara Alley could only bring lawsuits against the makers of engineered woods and mobile homes.

Through such legal action, Americans participated in the environmental awareness of the late 1970s. But as mobile home syndrome hurt...