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Katrina Trailers Not Safe for FEMA Employees, Yet Thousands of Gulf Coast Residents Allowed to Remain in Toxic Trailers

Nov 8, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Katrina trailers being stored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are so dangerous that employees from the agency have been barred from entering them.  Unfortunately FEMA has not given similar instructions to the 48,000 Gulf Coast hurricane victims who have been living in the toxic FEMA trailers for more than two years now.   

FEMA was supposed to test the air quality in some occupied trailers along the Gulf Coast yesterday, but postponed those plans.  The tests would have determined if the FEMA trailers were giving off toxic formaldehyde fumes.  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 trailers.  At least two deaths of trailer residents have been linked to formaldehyde exposure.

Despite its decision to postpone tests of FEMA trailers where people are actually living, the agency is telling its own employees to stay out of some of the 70,000 trailers it has in storage across the country.  The agency says that because these trailers have been closed up for so long, it’s likely that they contain dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.

At least one Louisiana Senator has taken FEMA to task for its double standard regarding its own employees and FEMA trailer residents.  Senator Mary Landrieu complained that the claim that occupied FEMA trailers are safer than stored trailers “defies logic”.  She told a New Orleans newspaper that most of the occupied FEMA trailers along the Gulf Coast are shut up during the day, while trailer residents are away at work or school.  During those hours, Landrieu said, it is likely that the occupied FEMA trailers fill up with dangerous formaldehyde fumes.  

Of course, this would not be the first time that FEMA has exhibited a cavalier attitude regarding the health of FEMA trailer residents.  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”.  

Last fall, FEMA finally bowed to public pressure and tested 96 trailers.  Those tests found formaldehyde levels as high as 1.2 parts per million, but 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.  On July 31, FEMA finally stopped using, the toxic trailers and offered alternative housing to Gulf Coast FEMA trailer residents.

But more than 10,000 FEMA trailers are still being used in Mississippi, along with another 37,000 in Louisiana.  The slow pace of recovery along the Gulf Coast, coupled with soaring housing costs in the area, have left many Katrina survivors little choice to but to continue living in the formaldehyde-contaminated trailers.  And because of its slow action in dealing with the crisis, the manufacturers of the toxic trailers are already facing lawsuits as a result of illnesses brought on by the formaldehyde fumes.   


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