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FEMA Trailer Residents on Gulf Coast Being Poisoned by Toxic Black Mold and Formaldehyde

Jan 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

While residents of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers on the Gulf Coast anxiously await the results of formaldehyde tests, many are finding they must contend with another toxic substance.  The FEMA trailers, which were never intended for long-term use, seem to be susceptible to the growth of the toxic mold.

The materials used in the manufacture of the trailers, coupled with long-term exposure to the Gulf Coast’s humid climate, could create a perfect environment for the growth of black mold.  Toxic black mold, called Stachybotrys chartarum, is a slimy, greenish-black mold that grows on moisture-laden materials that contain cellulose, such as wood, paper, drywall, and other similar products – all products used in the manufacture of the toxic FEMA trailers.  Toxic mold of this type produces hazardous byproducts, called mycotoxins. While individuals with asthma and other respiratory problems may have reactions to many types of mold, it's thought that mycotoxins are more likely to trigger health problems in even healthy individuals. These toxins are believed to be linked to memory loss and to severe lung problems in infants and the elderly.

According to an article on the Mississippi Press website, residents of FEMA trailers along the Gulf Coast have been reporting toxic mold problems since they were forced to move to the structures following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.   One Mississippi resident told the website  mold began appearing almost immediately after she moved into her trailer over a year ago, and that FEMA representatives have made several trips to her trailer to inspect the problem.  A FEMA spokesperson told Mississippi Press that trailer occupants should call the agency's maintenance support center at 866-877-6075 to report any mold. The spokesperson said FEMA responds to complaints by sending someone to inspect the trailer and, if mold is found, a contractor is brought in to remove it.

Hopefully, the agency’s response to the black mold problems in its trailers will be an improvement over its response to the toxic FEMA trailers’ formaldehyde issues.  In 2006, FEMA workers along the Gulf Coast alerted the agency to possible problems with air quality in the trailers. But e-mails uncovered during a congressional investigation into the trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. On June 15, 2006, one FEMA 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”. A day later, 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”.

The Sierra Club conducted independent tests on 600 FEMA trailers and mobile homes being used along the Gulf Coast in 2006. 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.

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.

After months of delay, FEMA began testing toxic trailers used by Gulf Coast residents in December.  FEMA has temporarily suspended the sale of its used trailers and says the units won’t be used to shelter victims of future disasters until the health concerns are resolved. In the meantime, the agency has moved hundreds of Gulf Coast families out of trailers and into apartments, hotel rooms or other temporary housing.


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