Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of reports on the trial underway in New Orleans involving Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and its production of emergency living units for Gulf Coast hurricane victims in 2005. In the absence of mainstream media coverage at this point, we are relying for now on reports like this one from the Courthouse News Service, a newswire for lawyers generated by a network of correspondents who provide daily comprehensive reports on new appellate rulings, new legislation and new civil cases from the federal and state courts with the most prolific and weighty litigation.
A FEMA worker testified on Tuesday (Sept. 22) that he was certain he had left a flier about the dangers of formaldehyde at the trailer of lead plaintiff Alana Alexander. But Alexander’s attorney then cited an exhibit — FEMA employee Stanley Larson’s tally sheet — in which Alexander’s trailer was marked as uninhabited. Unoccupied trailers did not receive FEMA’s July 2007 memo.
The tally sheet bolstered Alexander’s Monday testimony that she did not get the flier in either 2006 or 2007, despite FEMA’s insistence that it gave the information to every trailer inhabitant and applicant, according to the Courthouse News Service.
Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and Fluor Enterprises are defendants in the first federal trial on claims of personal injuries from toxic formaldehyde fumes in FEMA trailers.
Gulf Stream made the trailers and Fluor distributed and maintained them on a FEMA contract after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
One hundred and twenty thousand people were housed in the trailers after their homes were destroyed in the 2005 storms. Before the last of Gulf Stream Coach’s 50,000 trailers left the lot, formaldehyde toxicity in trailers had already made national news.
Sierra Club tests on trailers in April 2006 showed high levels of formaldehyde in about 88% of the FEMA trailers. In May 2006 the Sierra Club issued a media report on its findings.
Of the 33 trailers tested for formaldehyde in Louisiana and Mississippi, the Sierra Club said only two tested at or below the 0.1 parts per million safety limit recommended by the EPA and the American Lung Association. Several trailers were more than three times over the limit.
In response, Gulf Stream Coach in 2006 submitted statements on formaldehyde to include in fliers to be given to trailer residents. Alexander should have received a notice, but testified that she did not.
Symptoms of formaldehyde toxicity include watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, bloody nose, coughing, wheezing, nausea and rashes.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that people with long-term exposure to formaldehyde may suffer from headaches, depression, fatigue and memory loss.
Long-term exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer.
The fliers that FEMA made and distributed in 2006 did not mention the risk of cancer due to long-term exposure to formaldehyde. The fliers were rewritten, reprinted and redistributed one year later, during July 2007.
Alexander testified on Monday that had she known that the formaldehyde in her Gulf Stream Coach trailer increased her children’s risk of cancer, she would not have stayed in her FEMA trailer.
Gulf Stream Coach representatives testified last week that the company conducted formaldehyde tests on trailers as early as April 2006, but did not make the results public.
In June 2006, Kevin Souza, one of FEMA’s top housing officials, wrote an e-mail to FEMA attorney Patrick Preston: “Has the agency conducted our own testing of the units?” Souza asked. “If not, we need to do so ASAP and put this issue to rest or remove people from harm. I don’t want to rely on non-fed testing.”
The next day Preston replied: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. While I agree that we should conduct testing we should not do so until we are fully prepared to respond to the results. Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”
Souza testified via video on Tuesday. Plaintiffs’ attorney Justin Woods asked why Souza and FEMA did not use the Sierra Club’s findings from April 2006 testing.
“To be honest,” Souza said, “I wasn’t sure how testing was being performed, or how biased it would be,” coming from Sierra Club.
Souza expressed a desire to reach out to the federal scientific community for the tests, and said that the Environmental Protection Agency had warned that certain measures were required to get reliable results.
“The United States of America through the Federal Emergency Management Agency” is listed as a defendant in the 34-page federal complaint, but between videotaped testimonies on Tuesday, Judge Kurt Engelhardt announced, “The U.S. is a defendant in future cases, but it is not a defendant in this case.”
The Sierra Club’s media release in 2006 warned that formaldehyde is colorless, has a strong smell, and that prolonged exposure can cause lung cancer, nose cancer and throat cancer.
“‘It isn’t enough to have lost your home, but then you are placed inside a trailer that can literally poison you,'” Becky Gillette, co-chairwoman of the Mississippi Sierra Club said on the Sierra Club’s statement. “‘This is another example of the government purchasing material that is substandard and dangerous, made by companies that put profit above people.'”
Subsequent testing by the Environmental Protection Agency in October 2006 and then by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 confirmed high levels of formaldehyde.
In early 2008 FEMA and the CDC announced that levels of toxic gas in the FEMA trailers were high enough to warrant moving all residents out of the trailers before the hot summer, when formaldehyde leaking is worse due to high temperatures and humidity.
The trial, which finished its seventh day Tuesday, is expected to conclude Thursday afternoon.
Several years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita left thousands of families living in government-issued trailers, one of the first trials is set to begin today (Sept. 14) over whether fumes from the temporary homes sickened storm victims.
The lawsuits accuse trailer makers of providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with shoddy products in a rush to meet unprecedented demand for temporary housing after the 2005 hurricanes. The plaintiffs’ lawyers also claim FEMA was slow to respond to concerns about formaldehyde, jeopardizing residents’ health, according to the Associated Press.
FEMA, however, has been dismissed from one of the first cases because a judge ruled the claims against the federal government were brought too late. Attorneys are expected to appeal that ruling, though it’s not expected to hold up this “bellwether” trial.
In this first case, New Orleans resident Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper, are suing Indiana-based trailer maker Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin today.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier said he expects the companies to blame FEMA, even though the government isn’t part of the lawsuit and can’t be ordered to pay any damages.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is presiding over hundreds of consolidated suits that claim residents who lived in FEMA trailers were exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that is classified as a carcinogen and can cause breathing problems.
Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. FEMA downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008.
Alexander and Cooper, now 12 years old, moved into a FEMA travel trailer in May 2006 after Katrina damaged their home. Their suit claims formaldehyde fumes in the trailer aggravated Cooper’s asthma and gave them both itchy eyes and a burning sensation in their noses. They lived in the unit until December 2007, shortly after Alexander heard about formaldehyde concerns.
Gulf Stream, based in Nappanee, Ind., claims Cooper’s asthma sent him to an emergency room several times before Katrina. When he went to an emergency room for an asthma attack on Dec. 2, 2007, he told doctors that hadn’t had another attack in the previous year, the company said in court papers.
The company also questioned Alexander’s claim that formaldehyde was responsible for the eye, nose and throat irritation she reported.
“No doctor has examined her and reached that conclusion,” the company said in court papers. “No expert retained by her attorneys has opined that she has or had a formaldehyde-related injury.”
A spokesman for Fluor Enterprises, which had a contract to install FEMA trailers, said its work “enabled more than 160,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina to have a place to live while they got their lives back to normal.”
“While it is not Fluor’s policy to comment on pending legal matters, we will vigorously defend our work in court,” company spokesman Keith Stephens said in a written statement.