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Toxic FEMA Trailer Tests Set to Start After Long Delays

Dec 13, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Finally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is ready to start testing trailers provided to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for dangerous levels of formaldehyde.   Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator, told a Senate Committee yesterday that test on 500 occupied FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana would begin next Wednesday.  Tests of the toxic FEMA trailers have been delayed for nearly two months, although FEMA has been dragging its feet in regard to the trailers since concerns over their safety were first raised in 2006.

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.   By 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers 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.  Angry FEMA trailer residents took the agency to court over the postponement, and last week a US District Court Judge gave FEMA until December 17 to submit a plan to test the trailers for formaldehyde fumes.  

At yesterday’s hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, lawmakers where highly critical of FEMA’s failure to test the toxic trailers, and asked Johnson to explain the agency’s delay.  "It's taken a long time in part because we have not had this problem before," Johnson said. "This is the first time we've had people be in travel trailers for this length of time — up to two years — in which case some of these symptoms and the impacts on health have become more apparent."  Details of the FEMA trailer testing plan are to be unveiled at a news conference next week.

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.

Hundreds of trailer occupants in Mississippi and Louisiana have sued some of the companies that made the units for FEMA after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the Gulf Coast more than two years ago.

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