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FEMA Ordered to Submit Plan to Test Toxic Hurricane Trailers

Dec 4, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been ordered to submit a plan to start testing the toxic FEMA trailers still housing Gulf Coast hurricane victims for dangerous formaldehyde fumes.  FEMA was supposed to start testing the trailers on November 2, but indefinitely postponed the project.  Many FEMA trailer residents then sued the agency in an attempt to force it to perform air quality tests on the structures.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of those made homeless moved into FEMA trailers, and 48,000 people continue to live in the temporary housing.   Soon after people started moving into the trailers, FEMA began getting reports that residents where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers.  The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers.   But FEMA tried to ignore the problem.   E-mails uncovered earlier this year during a congressional investigation into the trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. FEMA's Office of General Council also advised the agency not to test the trailers because doing so "would imply FEMA's ownership of the issue".

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.   In spite of this danger, FEMA postponed the November 2 tests, saying it was not ready to begin the project.  However, despite its decision to postpone tests of FEMA trailers where people are actually living, the agency told its own employees to stay out of some of the 70,000 trailers it has in storage across the country due to dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.

Just after FEMA postponed air quality tests, the Sierra Club released the results of tests it performed on the toxic trailers. In some extreme cases, formaldehyde levels in the structures were 70 times higher than what is considered safe. Of the FEMA trailers and mobile homes tested by the Sierra Club, only 23 had formaldehyde levels that "were at less than twice the acceptable long-term exposure limit" of 0.008 ppm, and only 9 where below that standard. The majority of the FEMA trailers had levels of .56 ppm, while the formaldehyde detected in mobile homes was also above the threshold, in some cases as high as 0.1 ppm.

Now, a US District Court Judge has given FEMA until December 17 to respond to the FEMA trailer residents' testing lawsuit.  The judge wrote that the response "shall, at the very least, set forth a detailed plan for testing the FEMA trailer units and, if necessary, for providing alternative housing for the trailer residents."   The judge has not ruled on the FEMA trailer residents' request that air quality tests begin immediately.

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