FEMA trailer saga continues as residents sue manufacturers.
Formaldehyde is used as a wood preservative in construction material. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the compound as a human carcinogen; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a probable human carcinogen.
The plaintiffs' complaint charges that the trailers were manufactured "without the benefits of defendants' usual quality control. [The] defendants were unable to find enough construction materials from their usual suppliers of low-formaldehyde-emitting material and instead used high-formaldehyde-emitting particle board, composite woods, adhesive, and other materials in the manufacture of the housing units."
It is generally acknowledged that FEMA has mismanaged post-Katrina housing. A government investigation found a fundamental lack of emergency planning and advance contracting for supplies and labor. After spending billions on hotel rooms, cruise-ship cabins, and some trailers that couldn't be used in flooded areas, FEMA moved many families into government-subsidized rental units, but about 120,000 remained in trailers when residents started reporting that they were suffering headaches, nosebleeds, and respiratory symptoms.
Residents had lodged 200 complaints mentioning formaldehyde as of April 2006. News reports about the presence of formaldehyde in the trailers aired for three months before FEMA acknowledged a problem. In August 2006, Congress asked FEMA to turn over its information on formaldehyde and the trailers.
In a July 2007 hearing, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued its report, finding that FEMA failed to respond adequately to reports of dangerous formaldehyde levels in the trailers and that its officials obstructed the yearlong investigation by improperly invoking attorney-client privilege for nearly all 5,000 pages of related documents.
The documents showed that since early 2006, FEMA ignored warnings from its field workers about the health problems trailer residents were experiencing, and FEMA headquarters, particularly its Office of General Counsel, intervened to prevent action from being taken.
The committee report noted that by April 2006, FEMA had tested only one inhabited trailer, finding a formaldehyde level of 1.2 parts per million (ppm)--75 times higher than the maximum permissible workplace exposure level set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Independent testing that April by the Sierra Club in Mississippi found that formaldehyde levels in 94 percent of the trailers were higher than 0.1 ppm, the maximum recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); more tests in Alabama and Louisiana found that 83 percent of the trailers were above that limit. The 96 uninhabited trailers FEMA tested in fall 2006 also showed elevated levels of formaldehyde.
After the July House hearing, FEMA announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would test trailers for mold, airborne bacteria, and other contaminants. On August 1, FEMA suspended the use and sale of travel trailers for emergency housing "to assess the situation."
Anthony Buzbee of Galveston, Texas, filed the lawsuit on behalf of 500 plaintiffs still stuck living in the trailers. The 14 defendant companies "recklessly rushed to produce these trailers and sourced substandard building materials from foreign countries," according to the complaint. "The defendants breached their duties and were negligent, negligent per se, grossly negligent, reckless, and willful in providing housing units which were unreasonably dangerous and unhealthy, due to their high level of formaldehyde emissions."
Buzbee said the biggest hurdle in the case "is testing the trailers to confirm the exposure levels and linking such levels to the myriad symptoms. This is very labor intensive, especially when you are pursuing more than 3,000 claims." At press time, two months after FEMA said the CDC would begin testing, no trailers had yet been tested. The CDC said the delay was due to its efforts to establish a testing protocol and that random testing of trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana would begin at the end of October.
Buzbee said the plaintiffs are seeking treatment for their illnesses, along with damages and a medical-monitoring program. OSHA requires medical monitoring of workers exposed to concentrations of 0.1 ppm or more. Buzbee said the plaintiffs will also seek punitive damages if the evidence warrants it.
"At this point, we are not pursuing claims against FEMA," Buzbee said, adding that the plaintiffs "encourage the U.S. government to join with us to find out why these manufacturers profited by selling severely substandard products that are making people very sick."