Evidence from FEMA Trailers Spawns New Suits
The flood of formaldehyde litigation against travel trailer manufacturers who provided emergency housing after hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast in 2005 rose noticeably higher this month in Baton Rouge, La., federal court as 16 new suits were filed in a two-week period by hundreds of former or current trailer occupants, according to The Advocate, Baton Rouge.
Those plaintiffs say in their suits that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided them trailers in the Baton Rouge area after the hurricanes wrecked their homes.
Scores of manufacturers are named as defendants in those suits.
The New Orleans attorney for the plaintiffs is Lawrence J. Centola Jr., who did not return repeated phone calls to his office last week seeking comment on the development.
Another attorney and an environmentalist said they believe this second surge of complaints resulted from a year-old report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That report reveals that formaldehyde levels in some of the travel trailers were six times greater than “the level at which health effects have been described in sensitive persons.”
CDC officials noted the National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program does not list formaldehyde as a known cancer agent, but classifies the substance as “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen in humans.”
The CDC also noted that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (AARC) concluded five years ago that formaldehyde is “carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.”
The IARC believes formaldehyde causes cancer of nasal and other air passages in humans, CDC officials said in their report.
Baton Rouge lawyer Winston Decuir Jr., who is not involved in the formaldehyde suits, said the public release of the CDC report could be argued to have begun the one-year deadline for trailer residents to file suits for formaldehyde damages.
Under Louisiana law, “prescription” (known as the statute of limitations in other states) begins when someone becomes aware that he or she has been injured by another person or entity, Decuir explained.
“Generally, the prescriptive period is one year from the date the person becomes aware of it or should have become aware of it,” said Decuir, who has extensive experience in federal court in Baton Rouge.
“Prescription cannot run against a person who is not aware of the problem,” Decuir said. “If you’re unaware that formaldehyde is in the trailer, a civil suit is still possible once you know there is a problem.”
Wilma Subra, a New Iberia-based environmental consultant, is not working with any of the attorneys in the formaldehyde litigation.
Subra, who holds master’s degrees in microbiology and chemistry from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said she is convinced the CDC report of July 2008 lit the fuse for this month’s explosion of civil suits.
“They finally admitted that there are health problems associated with formaldehyde,” Subra said.
“It’s in the composite boards, the plywood and particle board,” said Subra, who often works with community groups seeking information about environmental hazards. “And the glue often is the source of much of the formaldehyde.”
She said the hurricane homeless felt for years that state and federal officials “ignored their complaints that they were made ill by the trailers.”
The federal government is a defendant in massive, ongoing formaldehyde litigation in federal court in New Orleans.
In the merging of dozens of those suits into one case, attorneys for FEMA and the manufacturers and other contractors who worked on the trailers deny responsibility for any formaldehyde damages.
Attorneys for both sides of that litigation did not return calls made to their offices last week for comment.
Subra continues to see signs of progress, though.
“The big thing is the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at what quantities of formaldehyde are in the boards,” Subra said.
She said the EPA is considering adoption of California’s tougher limits on formaldehyde levels in wood products.
“In California, you know what you’re buying,” Subra said. “It’s labeled.”