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FEMA Finally Ends Use of Toxic Trailers

Aug 8, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has announced that it will stop using and selling disaster-relief trailers because they could be emitting toxic formaldehyde fumes.  FEMA stopped using, buying and selling the trailers on July 31 so that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security can test the trailers for the dangerous fumes.  Around 120,000 FEMA trailers had been distributed to families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Recently, 56 of the trailers had been sent to Oklahoma to house people who lost homes to flooding.

Last week, the CDC began testing FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi.  At least 56,000 trailers are still being used in those states, and FEMA said it will help residents of its trailers find housing anywhere in the country.  The agency is also offering refunds to anyone who purchased the toxic FEMA trailers.  This is welcome news for families exposed to formaldehyde used in the trailers, because the extreme summer heat of the Deep South can aggravate the affects of the poisonous fumes.

It took a great deal of pressure before FEMA decided to do something about its trailers.  Last month a congressional hearing was convened after reports of health problems linked to the trailers made it into the news.  Several trailer residents testified at the hearing about respiratory ailments, skin rashes, intestinal problems and headaches they or family members experienced while living in the trailers.  These symptoms are consistent with formaldehyde exposure, which is also linked to cancer.  

Initially, FEMA was less than responsive regarding resident complaints, advising them only to keep trailer windows open.  And during last month’s congressional hearing, it was learned that after FEMA workers along the Gulf Coast requested that the structures be tested, the agency’s lawyers advised FEMA to drag its feet.  In a June 15, 2006 email introduced at the hearing, one lawyer advised the agency “do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . Once you get the results and should they indicate a problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them”.   In a second email, FEMA’s Office of General Council advised an agency employee not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.  

FEMA finally tested 96 trailers last September and October.  This past May the agency said that those tests found formaldehyde levels as high as 1.2 parts per million, but that levels dropped  to 0.3 parts per million after four hours of ventilation.  FEMA claimed that the lower level is an acceptable threshold according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  But 0.3 parts per million is 400 times greater than the year-round exposure limit set by the CDC.  It is also three times the daily exposure limit set by the National Institute on Occupational Safety.  

FEMA Administrator David Paulison said that the new policy is an interim one.  A final decision on the use of the trailers will be made once the CDC completes its tests.  Paulison also said that the new trailer policy would extend only to recreational-style vehicles, and not mobile homes.  Mobile homes are regulated by HUD.


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