FEMA Offers Refunds on Toxic TrailersJan 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will offer refunds to people who bought toxic FEMA trailers. The toxic FEMA trailers issued to Hurricane Katrina survivors are contaminated with formaldehyde. FEMA’s prior recommendation for fixing the problem was for families to open windows and turn on the air conditioner. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, David Paulison, FEMA's administrator said, "I don't know that the trailers are causing" any sickness. The federal government began selling trailers in 2006 through online auctions and to victims of the devastation of Gulf Coast hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Sales were suspended last July due to concerns over formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems. Hundreds of people in Louisiana and Mississippi are suing manufacturers, accusing them of providing FEMA with toxic trailers that contained high levels of the toxin.
Today, the government says 86,000 families are still living in those white FEMA travel trailers across the Gulf and many of them are suffering with a host of health problems tied, medical experts believe, to the toxic FEMA trailers. The trailers’ floors and cabinets were built with particleboard containing the chemical formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. The chemical was used as glue in the FEMA trailers and mobile homes. At least two deaths of FEMA trailer residents have been linked to formaldehyde exposure. Under hot, humid conditions, formaldehyde lets off toxic fumes, especially harmful to young lungs.
Terry Sloan was a floor supervisor at a Gulf Stream Coach factory in Etna Green, Indiana. Gulf Stream Coach built over 50,000 stripped-down travel trailers. Sloane says his crew worked at a breakneck pace for months, which, he says, forced the company to use cheaper wood products. "Quality suffered dramatically because of the drive and pressure to put these trailers out," Sloan said. Gulf Stream Coach issued a statement that said, in part, "For the FEMA trailers, it used components and materials that met or exceeded industry standards."
There are no federal standards for formaldehyde; however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a workplace exposure limit of .1 parts per million. Last year the Sierra Club tested 31 travel trailers in Mississippi and found virtually all 94 percent had formaldehyde levels exceeding that limit. CBS News also received information about an internal FEMA document citing cancer as a potential job hazard for those inspecting the trailers.
FEMA said that 10,839 travel trailers and park models were sold by the federal General Services Administration at an average price of $6,936; 864 toxic FEMA trailers were sold directly to hurricane victims. The agency said it would email buyers to notify them of the refund option. Buyers have 60 days to request a refund and FEMA will take back the toxic trailers once a refund is issued.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who is presiding over formaldehyde cases filed on behalf of 723 people, met with attorneys on both sides Thursday in New Orleans. Henry Miller, a lawyer for FEMA, said the agency has received only 20 formaldehyde-related claims that it considers "legally sufficient." FEMA says the toxic trailers won't be used as temporary shelters for disaster victims until safety concerns are addressed.
In late December, government scientists began measuring formaldehyde levels in hundreds of toxic FEMA trailers. Preliminary results are due next month; a final report is expected for release in May.