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FEMA Works to Move Thousands From Toxic Trailers in Louisiana, Mississippi

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The Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) Agency has received requests from 1,000 Louisiana families to be moved out of FEMA-issued trailers because of concerns that the structures might be contaminated with formaldehyde. About 43,000 Louisiana families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita still live in the toxic FEMA trailers. Earlier this month, FEMA announced that it would suspend use of the trailers while it investigates the formaldehyde problem. The agency also offered new housing to trailer residents concerned about the toxic fumes.

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 trailers. At least two deaths of trailer residents have been linked to formaldehyde exposure.

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 testing the air in the toxic trailers. One 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”.

FEMA finally tested 96 trailers last September and October. This past May the agency said that those tests found formaldehyde levels as high as 1.2 parts per million, but that 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 Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It is also three times the daily exposure limit set by the National Institute on Occupational Safety.

After a great deal of public and congressional pressure, FEMA announced earlier this month that it was suspending use of the trailers while the CDC conducts comprehensive air quality tests of the trailers. In Louisiana, FEMA has already moved 140 families from trailers to apartments. The agency has identified 6,500 rental units that meet FEMAs standards for temporary housing that could serve as alternatives to the toxic trailers. In Mississippi, where 17,382 families are living in trailers, 461 have asked to be moved from the FEMA trailers, and 83 have been relocated. Another 25 Mississippi families will be moved into other housing in early September.

Like much of its response to Hurricane Katrina, the toxic trailer debacle has been an embarrassment to FEMA. Hundreds of lawsuits against the trailer manufactures have been filed in Louisiana. One of those, filed earlier this month, alleges that the manufacturers cut corners and rushed to produce the shoddy trailers in an attempt to profit from FEMA’s need for thousands of trailers following the 2005 hurricanes.

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