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Toxic FEMA Trailers Still Sickening Thousands Two Years After Katrina

Aug 29, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Two years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, thousands of families are still living in toxic trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).   Despite receiving information that the trailers were emitting dangerous formaldehyde fumes in 2006, FEMA did not stop using the structures as emergency housing until earlier this month.  Now, thousands of families in Mississippi and Louisiana are waiting anxiously to be moved out of the toxic FEMA trailers.

On August 1, FEMA stopped using, buying and selling the trailers in order to allow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security to test their air quality.  Around 120,000 FEMA trailers had been distributed to families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Fifty-six of the toxic trailers had also been sent to Oklahoma earlier this summer to house people who lost homes to flooding. The agency has offered to move trailer residents into other housing, and promised refunds to anyone who purchased the toxic FEMA trailers.  So far, FEMA has received requests for relocation from 1,000 Louisiana families and 436 Mississippi households.  Close to 60,000 families in both states still live the FEMA trailers.

FEMA took its time in deciding how to handle the toxic trailer debacle.   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.  Exposure to formaldehyde can cause a host of health problems, including respiratory illness and even cancer.

The slow pace of recovery along the Gulf Coast, coupled with soaring housing costs in the area, have left many Katrina survivors little choice but to continue living in the formaldehyde-contaminated trailers.  And 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.   Now Two years after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people are waiting on FEMA to move them from the toxic trailers.


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