After Formaldehyde Complaints, FEMA to Test Air Quality in Trailers

Federal agencies will test air quality in trailers housing Gulf Coast hurricane victims, an official said July 20, a day after documents revealed that government lawyers discouraged investigating reports of high formaldehyde levels in them.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on July 21 was to begin distributing a fact sheet on formaldehyde and housing to the occupants of each travel trailer and mobile home the agency issued in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, said R. David Paulison, FEMA’s administrator.

“This fact sheet will provide basic information about formaldehyde, its possible medical effects and contacts for further assistance,” he said.

On July 24, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs will conduct a preliminary field study that will test the air in “FEMA-purchased housing units under real-life conditions,” Paulison said.

“We are also looking into engineering solutions that may be available effectively to remove environmental pollutants from the trailers,” he said.

FEMA provided more than 120,000 trailers to people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Thousands of people still live in them, mostly in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Documents released to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed FEMA lawyers discouraged the agency from pursuing reports that the trailers had dangerous levels of formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems.

Residents of Renaissance Village, a FEMA trailer park in Baker, said they have no proof the trailers are causing illness. Wilbert Ross, 60, had asthma and emphysema before Katrina, conditions that have worsened since he moved into the trailer – a common complaint among the community’s residents.

“Here, you have a whole community that has health problems,” Ross said.

During a July 19 hearing in the House, Paulison apologized to trailer occupants. The agency previously had issued a statement saying air quality in the trailers is safe if they are properly ventilated.

The formaldehyde complaints had sparked lawsuits before the congressional hearing, and more are likely.

Justin Woods, a New Orleans lawyer who filed a lawsuit that accuses FEMA of exposing trailer occupants to the chemical, said he expects an “onslaught” of similar litigation.

Woods represents the family of Desiree Collins, 47, a Renaissance Village resident who died July 2, about a week after she was found to have lung cancer.

On behalf of Collins’ husband and children, Woods asked a federal judge to certify a class-action lawsuit – not against FEMA, but against companies that sold trailers to the agency. Collins said his suit is one of several in Louisiana – none of which has yet been certified class-action.

“It’s still at a very early stage in the litigation,” he said.

In May, the Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club issued a nonscientific report saying its tests revealed high formaldehyde emissions in dozens of trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Chapter co-chair Becky Gillette said she is concerned that FEMA’s response to the problem appears limited to conducting more tests.

“The remedy is still just far down the line for the tens of thousands of folks still living in the trailers,” Gillette said.

Formaldehyde is used in some materials in the trailers. It can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and skin, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

FEMA said it would open a toll-free hot line to answer questions about the formaldehyde issue and associated FEMA housing concerns. The toll-free number is 866-562-2381.

Associated Press writers Mike Kunzelman in New Orleans and Shelia Byrd in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

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