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FEMA Knew Katrina Trailers Were Toxic, But Ignored Danger on Advice of Lawyers

Jul 30, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to test the toxic trailers of Hurricane Katrina refugees on the advice of their lawyers. Toxic formaldehyde is reported to have been seeping into these trailers. As many as 120,000 families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were provided with these trailers by FEMA.

Formaldehyde is a wood preservative commonly used in construction materials such as particle board. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to formaldehyde can cause respiratory and vision problems. Long term exposure can also cause cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis, mouth and nasal tumors, and allergies in children and pets.  

Lindsay Huckabee, whose family had been living in a FEMA trailer in Kiln, Mississippi, told a Congressional panel that on day in 2006, she found her 4-year-old daughter holding her nose in an attempt to stop it from bleeding. The blood had leaked all over her arms and shirt. Since her family moved to their trailer, they have all experienced burning eyes, headaches, sinus infections, and nosebleeds.  These things occurred so often, Huckabee said, that she could not afford the hospital bills anymore.  She told the panel that she often felt helpless trying to deal with her children’s health problems.

After complaining about the fumes, one man in Slidell, Louisiana was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006.  It was recommended by 28 officials from 6 different agencies that this incident be investigated.  These agencies also advised that independent air quality tests be conducted on the trailers. However FEMA lawyers told the agency that taking any such action would make it appear as if FEMA was responsible and/or liable. In one email found by the subcommittee, an agency lawyer wrote, “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK… Once you get the results…the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.” Another FEMA lawyer, Adrian Sevier, wrote in an email that investigations not approved by lawyers "could seriously undermine the Agency's position."

About 66,000 families still remain in the affected trailers. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers, and has moved five families into rental units. In a May 2006 report conducted by The Sierra Club, unsafe levels of formaldehyde were found in 30 out of 32 trailers that were tested along the Gulf Coast.  The test conducted by The Sierra Club found the level of formaldehyde in the trailers to be 0.3 parts per million. Occupational health and safety engineer Mary C. DeVany testified that an exposure of 0.3 parts per million is 400 times the year round limit set by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  A class action lawsuit was also filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by a number of residents against the trailer manufacturers

FEMA director R. David Paulison testified before Congress that the 200 complaints he received were regarding a very small fraction of the actual number of affected families. Paulison claimed that more research needs to be done.


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