Katrina Evacuees Sue FEMA, Manufacturers for High Formaldehyde Levels in Trailers

Victims of Hurricane Katrina forced into travel trailers have joined to sue the Federal Emergency Management Agency and manufacturers of the housing structures.

When families moved into the new living quarters, it was discovered there were high levels of formaldehyde inside the units. When residents asked FEMA to test for the substance, they were refused.

Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) ran its own tests and found formaldehyde levels in the trailer prohibitively excessive. The 2005 hurricane forced 120,000 families from the New Orleans area into trailers.

The Clarion (Miss.) Ledger reported this lawsuit could rival product-liability lawsuits such as asbestos and tobacco, if litigants win their case.

Letecheia Acker said her 2-year-old son has had frequent respiratory infections and upset stomachs while living in the trailer. When Acker personally asked FEMA to investigate, she was denied. When attorneys publicized government emails rejecting trailer-resident requests for testing, things changed. When the CDCP tested 519 trailers and found high levels of formaldehyde, FEMA decided to honor every request for trailer testing.

Lawyers for trailer residents said the CDCP test results are misleading because they were conducted in winter. Lawyers stipulated that formaldehyde levels increase when outdoor temperatures rise.

Tony Buzbee, a attorney representing 5,000 people displaced by two hurricanes, arranged for trailer testing on his own and found 750 FEMA trailers had higher formaldehyde levels than what the CDCP tests determined. “People should go to jail for what has happened here,” the attorney said, according to the Clarion Ledger.

Formaldehyde is a colorless gas emitted by construction materials that causes burning eyes, respiratory problems and rashes. The gas also may cause cancer.

Seven law firms have joined together in the suit against trailer manufacturers. Counsel will file a master complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against 34 manufacturers and FEMA, the Clarion Ledger said. Judge Kurt Engelhardt is considering the case.

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