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Toxic FEMA Trailer Residents File Lawsuit to Force Air Quality Tests

Nov 19, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP Hurricane Katrina victims still living in toxic trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have gone to court in an attempt to force air quality tests of the FEMA trailers.   FEMA was supposed to start testing the trailers for dangerous formaldehyde fumes on November 2, but postponed those tests.   The FEMA trailer residents assert that the delay in testing is endangering their health.

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.

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. 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”. 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”.

This summer, FEMA announced that it would stop using the trailers, and offered to move people into other housing.  The agency was also supposed to start testing the air in trailers by now, but postponed those tests, saying that it wasn’t ready to start.  The announcement came shortly before the Sierra Club released its own tests of some FEMA trailers and mobile homes.  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.

Court papers filed by the FEMA trailer residents’ attorneys on Friday asked that the agency be ordered to start the tests.   The complaint asserted that without the court's intervention, "FEMA will continue to delay, and this national public health emergency will continue unabated.”

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