Toxic FEMA Trailer Manufacturers Target of Lawsuit

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) purchased contaminated disaster-relief trailers from several companies named in a federal lawsuit filed last week, according to the Associated Press. The trailers, which were made from materials that may have emitted the toxic chemical formaldehyde, housed thousands of displaced hurricane victims, many of whom have since complained of symptoms ranging from bloody noses to coughing and breathing difficulties to complications in pregnancy. Five hundred hurricane survivors and evacuees in Louisiana are now taking legal action against the trailer manufacturers. Though FEMA was not named in the suit filed August 7 in New Orleans, the agency has been named in other suits.

The most recent lawsuit alleges that manufacturers of the <"">contaminated trailers neglected safety concerns related to the fabrication materials when they hastened to build thousands of units in 2005 after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina slammed into the Southeast United States. Only 14,000 trailers were originally available when FEMA asked for over 100,000 additional trailers after a rough hurricane season, according to the Associated Press report. Many hurricane victims began reporting health problems soon after living in the trailers, with some even noticing a noxious smell as soon as they first entered their temporary homes.

Since February 2006, FEMA officials have known about toxic formaldehyde fumes emitted by the disaster-relief trailers, according to over 5,000 e-mails made public by the House Committee on Oversight and Government last month. A report on the newly released documents published in The Independent Weekly reveals that while some members of the organization raised concerns about the formaldehyde contamination, FEMA attorneys constantly squashed any action that might ameliorate the situation for the hurricane victims. Instead, FEMA officials consistently told residents of the tainted trailers that proper ventilation would neutralize any problems related to air quality.

In order to avoid litigation against the agency, FEMA legal staff prevented the agency’s representatives and scientists from testing the air in the trailers for formaldehyde, relocating victims who complained of symptoms related to formaldehyde exposure, or issuing any admission that the trailers were contaminated despite mounting evidence of a problem. In April 2006, FEMA field workers in Mississippi measured formaldehyde levels in one occupied trailer at 1.2 parts per million (ppm), far above the safety threshold for prolonged exposure of .016 ppm put forward by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. FEMA inspectors told the residents of the tainted trailer to “vacate without delay” due to “very dangerous” conditions, but FEMA attorneys stopped any further testing of other trailers, according to The Independent Weekly.

FEMA officials have since taken a different tack as pressure from the congressional oversight committee has increased, first announcing that the agency would cease to purchase and distribute the trailers, then pledging this week in a letter to The Times – Picayune of New Orleans that moving residents out of trailers and into permanent housing “continues to be a top priority for FEMA.”

But displaced hurricane victims are not thrilled by the prospect of moving away from their damaged homes. “We don’t want rental assistance…we need to stay here so we can rebuild our house,” Nancy Sonnier of Lake Charles, Louisiana told The Independent Weekly. Sonnier described a FEMA official who checked her trailer for formaldehyde by simply entering and smelling the air inside.

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