Toxic Popcorn Chemical Makes Thousands Ill, Yet FDA and Other Agencies Ignore RiskSep 5, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP
Hurricane Katrina victims stuck in toxic trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) won’t have to stay in them much longer, as the agency has announced that it will cover the cost of hotel rooms for residents that want to leave the trailers as soon as possible. FEMA had decided to discontinue using the trailers last month, and had offered to move residents into new rental housing. But the waiting list for such housing is long, and FEMA said that the hotel option would help ease health concerns among trailer residents.
The toxic FEMA trailers were given to as many as 120,000 displaced Gulf coast families after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Not long after residents were moved into the trailers, many started to complain of respiratory and other problems associated with formaldehyde poisoning. The toxic chemical, which is known to cause cancer, was used in the construction of the trailers. While FEMA was made aware of the possible formaldehyde problem as early as 2006, it took no action until concerns over the contaminated trailers reached the media. FEMA finally tested some trailers for formaldehyde in the fall of 2006. 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. The lower level is still 400 times greater than the year-round exposure limit set by the Centers for Disease Control.
Finally, after much public and congressional pressure, FEMA decided to cease use of the trailers. And it has offered hotel accommodations in order to get residents away from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible. To qualify for a hotel room, hurricane victims must be registered for federal disaster aid, they must be living in FEMA-provided temporary housing, and they must agree to certain conditions. Those conditions include signing a statement agreeing that the hotel room will be used only for the applicant’s household. Applicants will also not be able to return to or buy a FEMA trailer if the agency should decide to use them as temporary housing once again
While FEMA’s offer of hotel housing is an improvement over the way it handled the toxic trailer issue in the past, many in Congress are still angry that FEMA did not deal with the formaldehyde issue sooner. At a congressional hearing earlier this summer, emails from FEMA lawyers were released that indicated the agency was more concerned about lawsuits than the health of trailer residents. One 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”.
Because of its slow action in dealing with the crisis, FEMA and the manufacturers of the toxic trailers are already facing lawsuits as a result of illnesses brought on by the formaldehyde fumes. Those lawsuits could cost US taxpayers millions, something that would have been avoided had FEMA acted sooner.