The strong-smelling chemical formaldehyde causes cancer, while styrene, a second industrial chemical that’s used worldwide in the manufacture of fiberglass and food containers, may cause cancer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says.
According to the Associated Press, the NIH said that people with higher measures of exposure to formaldehyde are at increased risk for certain types of rare cancers, including those affecting the upper part of the throat behind the nose. The chemical is used in a broad range of plastics, paper and wood products, including building components used in recreational vehicles.
The government says styrene is a component of tobacco smoke, and NIH says the greatest exposure to the chemical is through cigarette smoking.
The two chemicals were among eight added to the government’s list submitted to Congress of chemicals and biological agents that may put people at increased risk of for cancer.
Also on the list as a known carcinogen is a botanical agent called aristolochic acids, shown to cause high rates of bladder or upper urinary tract cancer in people with kidney or renal disease.
Carcinogens do not always cause cancer. That depends on length and type of exposure and a person’s genetic makeup. The American Cancer Society estimates that only about 6% of cancers are related to environmental causes and most of that is on-the-job occupational exposure.
The title of hearings Wednesday (April 28) before the House Energy Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection was, “The Public Sales of Hurricane Katrina/Rita FEMA Trailers: Are they Safe or Environmental Time Bombs?”
The bipartisan consensus on the committee seemed to be leaning heavily toward “environmental time bombs,” but now that the General Services Administration has completed the sale of more than 100,000 of the trailers, it is not clear what Congress can do about it, according to NOLA.com
“We’ve seen that there is an unsafe level of formaldehyde in some of these trailers and I don’t think it’s the wisest thing for the federal government to be selling those and having people live in them and experience more health problems,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., a member of the subcommittee. “We’ve got to figure out a better way to handle this … to see if we can unravel this.”
“Unbelievably, these are the same trailers that made thousands of people ill, some severely ill, from exposure to formaldehyde gases and vapors; young children, elderly people and those with serious respiratory conditions, from asthma to bronchitis, inhaled these vapors over long, extended periods of time,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who chairs the subcommittee. “Am I the only one left scratching his head at this outcome?”
But David Garratt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) associate administrator for mission support, defended the sales. He said that the mobile homes, park models and travel trailers returned to FEMA after their use along the Gulf Coast and auctioned off this year at bargain prices, met existing industry standards. And, he said, buyers of the travel trailers — which are the ones that posed the most danger and were never intended to provide long-term housing — had to certify that they understood the formaldehyde risk and that the travel trailers “are not intended to be used as housing.”
“Subsequent owners must continue to similarly inform subsequent buyers for the life of the unit,” said Garratt, though some members of the committee seemed dubious that would always happen.
Garratt estimated the cost to the government of storing and maintaining the previously used units had run close to $130 million a year.
While filmmaker Gabe Chasnoff, who produced and directed “Renaissance Village,” a documentary about the formaldehyde trailers, played a clip Wednesday that included then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s declaration at a congressional hearing in 2008 that, “we are out of the trailer business,” Garratt said that is not the case.
Travel trailers are the only models small enough to be placed on people’s properties while they rebuild and, in future disasters, Garratt said, FEMA will rely on a new inventory of trailers built for FEMA to new higher air-quality standards. And, they will only be placed on properties where the repairs can be completed in a about six months.
At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the formaldehyde fiasco highlighted the inadequacy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to “assess and restrict dangerous chemicals,” power that might have averted “this problem in the first place.”
EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator James Jones testified that EPA’s draft assessment on the dangers of formaldehyde should be released in the next month or so.
But in his testimony, Dr. Corey Hebert, an associate professor of pediatrics at Tulane University Medical Center and the chief medical officer of the Recovery School District, said that in its broadest strokes, the verdict on formaldehyde is already in.
“We know it’s a carcinogen,” said Hebert, who said that the market fails to heed that fact because “this is America, this is capitalism, this is what we do.” Hebert said no trailers should have been resold until any formaldehyde peril was remediated.
Two major liability trials begin today in federal court in New Orleans.
The claims of toxic formaldehyde emissions from FEMA-supplied trailers for hurricane refugees, and hazardous emissions from Chinese-made drywall, are both the second in a series of “test” trials of multidistrict litigation, in which plaintiffs and defendants change but the complaints remain essentially the same — long-term health problems from hazardous chemicals, and property damage in the drywall complaints, according to the Courthouse News Service.
Hundreds of thousands of such liability suits resulted from the chaotic rebuilding process after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Building materials are blamed for widespread illnesses caused by breathing the toxic fumes.
In addition, the Chinese-made drywall has been blamed for corroding copper and other metal surfaces, causing problems with wiring and plumbing, and ruining household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dryers.
Tatum and Charlene Hernandez are plaintiffs in the Chinese drywall trial; Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin is the lead defendant. U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon will preside over that bench trial.
Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt will preside over the jury trial in the FEMA trailer trial brought by Lyndon Wright against trailer manufacturer Forest River Inc. and the environmental testing firm Shaw Environmental.
The United States will also be a defendant in this trial, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Because of a last-minute decision by Judge Engelhardt last summer, FEMA was not included as a defendant in the first FEMA trailer trial against Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind.
The complaint to be tried beginning this week, filed in March 2009, claims Forest River supplied trailers to FEMA that contained toxic levels of formaldehyde.
Forest River and other manufacturers supplied tens of thousands of trailers for emergency use after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The trailer makers subsequently faced lawsuits from hurricane victims who said the formaldehyde made them sick.
Company lawyers say the trailers were safe.
On Sept. 24, a jury took just four hours to clear Gulf Stream Coach of such accusations from a family that occupied a trailer made by the company
The second of five “bellwether” trials on the environmental safety of travel trailers built for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2005 hurricane victims is scheduled to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
Forest River Inc. is the defendant in this case, along with environmental testing firm Shaw Environmental Inc. and FEMA, brought by Lyndon T. Wright.
The suit, filed March 2, 2009, claims Forest River supplied trailers to FEMA that were contaminated with toxic levels of formaldehyde.
Forest River and other RV manufacturers supplied tens of thousands of trailers for emergency use following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The trailer makers subsequently faced lawsuits from hurricane victims claiming that the formaldehyde caused their health to deteriorate. Company lawyers say the trailers were safe.
Forest River, represented by New Orleans attorneys Jason D. Bone and Ernest P. Gieger Jr., has identified more than 60 witnesses by name that it could call during the trial before Judge Kurt Englehardt. The U.S. government has named 33 witnesses it plans to call in its defense.
On Sept. 24, a jury took just four hours to find Gulf Stream Coach Inc. innocent of similar accusations from a family that occupied a trailer made by the Nappanee, Ind.-based company.
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. and Keystone RV Co. Inc. also were sued in the same court. The case against Fleetwood, the predecessor company to the current Fleetwood RV Inc., was settled out of court in a confidential agreement, which was approved on Wednesday by the court in Riverside, Calif., overseeing Fleetwood’s bankruptcy, according to Fleetwood attorney Richard Hines.
The Keystone trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 11, has been rescheduled to a later date.
A New Orleans, La., jury already has ruled against the plaintiffs in the first trial over hurricane victims’ exposure to formaldehyde fumes while living in government-issued trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Now, lawyers for other Gulf Coast storm victims want to hold what would essentially be a pair of mock trials in two other cases, possibly a prelude to settlement of hundreds of other claims, according to the Associated Press.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys asked a federal judge to order the nonbinding “summary jury trials” for two of the hundreds of cases against companies that supplied tens of thousands of trailers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt hasn’t yet acted on the request, which came less than a week after a federal jury on Sept. 24 rejected a New Orleans family’s claims that elevated levels of the chemical formaldehyde in their FEMA-supplied trailer harmed them.
The verdict capped the first of several ”bellwether” trials that accuse trailer makers of using shoddy materials and methods in a rush to fill FEMA’s demand for emergency housing after the hurricane, and exposing people who lived in them to potentially dangerous chemicals. The bellwether trials for a handful of claims chosen from among hundreds to be heard in court are designed to help the New Orleans court test the merits and possibly settle other claims over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers.
Summary jury trials are an alternative to mediation, offering another way to resolve a case without a full-fledged trial. They typically last less than a day and cost much less than real trials. Engelhardt would preside over them, but they are governed by less-stringent procedural rules. Jurors aren’t told the parties aren’t bound by their verdict. Unlike regular trials, the proceedings and the verdict can be kept confidential.
Gerald Meunier, a lead lawyer for plaintiffs in the formaldehyde litigation, said summary jury trials can be an efficient way of promoting a mass settlement and avoiding the “seven-figure” cost of trying formaldehyde lawsuits individually.
“It’s a perfect fit,” said Meunier. “The cost of conducting bellwether trials is substantial for both sides.”
But the plaintiffs’ proposal received a cool reception from defendants’ lawyers.
Keystone RV Co., one of the companies that supplied FEMA with trailers, objected to using summary jury trial for the case against the company that is scheduled to be tried in January. Lawyers for Goshen, Ind.-based Keystone said the case isn’t ripe for a settlement and rejected the notion a summary jury trial will save time and money.
“In fact, the procedure may exacerbate them, forcing the parties to prepare once for the summary trial, and then again for a full trial on the merits if the matter does not settle,” Keystone attorneys wrote.
Now-bankrupt Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., a defendant in a trial scheduled to start Dec. 7, said it is willing to entertain the idea but “the devil is in the details,” since the plaintiffs’ motion doesn’t specify the exact format. Fleetwood, based Riverside, Calif., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2008.
The federal government also is a defendant in the December and January trials but may be dismissed from the cases before the trials start. Government lawyers said summary jury trials would have no bearing on claims against FEMA because its part of the cases will be decided by a judge, not a jury.
“While other parties could potentially benefit from learning how a jury — the ultimate fact finder in their eventual trial on the merits — views their respective positions, the United States would be forced to go through the time and expense of an SJT proceeding only to receive nothing useful in return,” government lawyers wrote.
Thomas Lambros, a retired federal judge from Ohio who created summary jury trials in 1980, said they “ought to be used as a last resort” in resolving cases and shouldn’t be viewed as a foolproof way of predicting the outcome of a jury trial
“Nothing is a perfect predictor of an outcome,” he said.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said in court papers that summary jury trials would help both sides avoid “spending multiple times more on a merits trial than the amount of recoverable damages.” Keystone attorneys rejected that argument. “If the plaintiffs and their counsel are concerned about the small value of their claims, this begs the obvious question — why did they bring the claims in the first place?” they asked.
A federal jury on Thursday (Sept. 24) rejected a New Orleans family’s assertions that the government-issued trailer they lived in after Hurricane Katrina exposed them to dangerous fumes, in the first of several trials that could lead to hundreds of similar claims being resolved.
Five men and three women decided that a trailer made by Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and occupied by Alana Alexander and her 12-year-old son, Christopher Cooper, was not “unreasonably dangerous” in its construction. One juror said the plaintiffs’ attorneys never had the “smoking gun” that proved their case, according to the Associated Press.
The jury also concluded that Fluor Enterprises Inc., which had a contract to install FEMA trailers, wasn’t negligent. The federal government wasn’t a defendant in this first of several “bellwether” trials, which are designed to help the New Orleans court test the merits and possibly settle of other claims over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers.
Lawyers on both sides wouldn’t speculate on how the verdict could affect other cases. A law professor who specializes in toxic tort cases said verdicts in bellwether trials can steer parties toward a mass settlement of similar claims.
Alexander and Cooper lived in a FEMA trailer for 19 months after Hurricane Katrina damaged their home in August 2005.
Alexander’s lawyers claimed elevated levels of formaldehyde aggravated Cooper’s asthma and increased his risk of getting cancer. Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in construction materials, can cause breathing problems and has been classified as a carcinogen.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys accused Gulf Stream and other trailer makers of using shoddy materials and methods in a rush to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s unprecedented demand for temporary shelters after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Gulf Stream denied its trailer jeopardized the health of Alexander and her family. A company lawyer also noted that Alexander took her son off a steroid medication for his asthma for more than two years.
The jury heard eight days of testimony and deliberated about four hours before delivering its decision.
Juror Roy Pierce, 43, of Boutte, said he was troubled by testimony about some of Gulf Stream’s “in-house practices” but didn’t think the evidence supported a verdict against the companies.
“You didn’t have the smoking gun,” he said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier said he was disappointed.
“We thought we presented a strong case. The jury has spoken on this one,” he said.
Andrew Weinstock, a lawyer for Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream, said FEMA had purchased thousands of trailers from the company since 1992 without receiving any formaldehyde complaints until 2006.
Weinstock said the company is pleased with the outcome, but he wouldn’t speculate on how the verdict could impact similar cases awaiting trial.
“If some good came from this, it’s that Christopher Cooper is now on the proper asthma medication … and we’re happy for that,” he added.
Pavel Wonsowicz, a UCLA School of Law professor who specialized in toxic tort and products liability cases as a trial attorney in Boston, said verdicts in bellwether trials can steer parties toward settling many others.
But lawyers typically wait for several cases to be tried, he said. For example, Merck Inc. had won 10 of 15 federal and state court verdicts — including four of five in federal court — when it agreed to a $4.85 billion settlement with people who had suffered heart attacks or strokes after taking its painkiller Vioxx for at least 30 days.
Before the trailer trial started, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled that a two-year statute of limitations bars Cooper’s claims against the government. Pierce said he doesn’t know if the jury would have reached a different verdict if the government hadn’t been dismissed from the lawsuit.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “It wasn’t simple.”
Alexander’s trailer was made in 2004 for FEMA to use after a hurricane in Florida, but it wasn’t occupied until her family moved in after Katrina. Weinstock said during his closing arguments that Gulf Stream wasn’t obligated to build a “perfect product.”
“It’s a nice piece of equipment. It’s not the Taj Mahal,” he said of the travel trailers, which are smaller than mobile homes.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mikal Watts said Gulf Stream made an “unreasonably dangerous” trailer and Flour compounded the formaldehyde risks by improperly installing it. FEMA relied on the companies to provide safe shelters, Watts added.
“Frankly, I think they were trying to clean up somebody else’s mess, and they should not be held responsible,” Watts said of FEMA.
Weinstock told jurors that formaldehyde is found in safe levels in many products, including cosmetics, foods and shampoo. He downplayed the link between formaldehyde and cancer, saying only one scientific group has classified the chemical as a carcinogen.
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.
“If these trailers weren’t dangerous, would there be 30,000 of them sitting in a field?” plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee said.
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.
On the fourth day of a nationally watched trial over toxic fumes in trailers provided to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, an owner of a firm that made many of the trailers was questioned over apparently misleading answers provided to a newspaper reporter pursuing a story about high formaldehyde levels in the FEMA-provided trailers.
Gulf Stream Coach Inc. co-President Dan Shea appeared in the courtroom on Thursday (Sept. 17) via video testimony, answering questions from plaintiff attorney Tony Buzbee who accused the company of knowingly deceiving the public over the quality of materials used in more than 50,000 trailers, according to the Courthouse News Service.
The trial began Sept. 14 in New Orleans over allegations of sickness caused by high levels of formaldehyde in Gulf Stream Coach trailers distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA-issued trailers were distributed by the thousands for emergency temporary housing following the 2005 devastation of the Gulf Coast.
Along with the maker of the trailers, the distributor, Fluor Corp., is also on trial. Fluor hauled and installed the trailers through contracts with FEMA. Fluor is accused in the ongoing civil trial of negligence in the installation of the trailers, causing damage to the frames of the trailers which in turn is alleged to have exacerbated the formaldehyde problems.
“Who is Steve Lidy?” plaintiff attorney Tony Buzbee asked Dan Shea during testimony yesterday.
“He is a person who was in Gulf Stream’s marketing department.”
“Did you tell Steve Lidy not to lie to the press when you read his e-mail and saw what he wrote to the press? Did you call and correct him?” asked Buzbee.
The e-mail in question was written by Lidy to Laura Halleman from the “Madison Courier.” Lidy references his email to Halleman in a July 2007 e-mail to Dan Shea, saying Halleman, “wanted to know what steps” had been taken by Gulf Stream “to fix the FEMA formaldehyde problem.”
Steve Lidy goes on to tell Dan Shea, “I told her we are ahead of the curve, that for years we have been using (low formaldehyde) building products to meet & exceed the manufactured housing standards. She got snippy at me saying our trailers are showing high levels. I asked her to be sure they are our trailers since there are trailers from many manufacturers in that region and then I referred her back to FEMA for any further questions and answers.”
In earlier testimony, Dan Shea said that in spring 2006 he became aware that possibly 15% of the interior wood products, supplied through Adorn, that were used in Gulf Stream trailers were not the LFE (low formaldehyde emitting) quality he and his brother Jim Shea Jr. insisted Gulf Stream Coach exclusively used in construction of its FEMA-supply travel trailers. Due to the nature of manufacture and the glues used in processing, woods used in travel trailers and manufactured homes tend to have high formaldehyde levels.
Almost every component inside the Gulf Stream Coach FEMA trailers is made from wood. The walls, cabinets, kitchen table, master bed and bunk beds are made of wood or wood components. Dan Shea additionally testified that somewhere around the same time, he and his brother Jim Jr. also realized that two-thirds of the wood they were supplied from Weyerhaeuser and Samling, used in the flooring and the roof of the trailers, was not certified LFE.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA awarded Gulf Stream Coach more than $500 million in contracts for more than 50,000 travel trailers. Gulf Stream’s was among the few no-bid contracts for travel trailers that FEMA awarded directly to a trailer manufacturer.
Jim Shea Jr. testified earlier in the trial that formaldehyde complaints were surfacing even before all of Gulf Stream Coach’s 50,000 trailers had been delivered to hurricane victims.
In March 2006, CNN picked up a story about formaldehyde poisoning from a Biloxi TV station and soon the formaldehyde issue was national news.
Soon after, Dan Shea wrote in an oft-cited letter to FEMA Logistics Management Specialist Supervisor Stephen Miller: “We remain ready, willing, and able to work with FEMA with regard to any complaint, including sending representatives within 24 hours to work with your contractors to inspect, test, or do whatever is reasonably necessary to address any complaint.”
Referring to that letter during Shea’s video testimony on Thursday, plaintiff counsel told Shea, “The e-mail you sent to Mr. Miller is not true. … Can you admit to me that it is not true so we can move on?”
After a back and forth for a few moments, Shea said, “It’s my understanding at this point, some three years later… that one of the key points here … there had been some question about the material specs requirement … and I told (Steve Miller) that we knew FEMA had a big task and that we would be willing to do whatever we needed to do to assist them.”
Shea continued: “I certainly think we had a proactive approach with FEMA. … We contacted them and told them then that we would like to advise any customers who had a complaint.”
Referring to FEMA’s letter to Shea, plaintiff lawyer Buzbee asked Shea: “Steve Miller wanted to know, `Does your field staff have the capability to put this issue to bed.’ What did that mean to you?”
“I thought he was asking if our field staff could test the trailers.”
“And you told him you would have someone down (to Louisiana) to test trailers on Friday.”
“But you didn’t do that, did you?”
“No. We didn’t have the capability in three days.”
According to Buzbee, following the e-mail in which Dan Shea says he will have someone in Louisiana on Friday, there were no further e-mails from Gulf Steam to FEMA.
A representative from Fluor Corp. testified Wednesday (Sept. 16) that despite being told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to let FEMA worry about formaldehyde testing in FEMA trailers, a Fluor employee’s illness, attributed to formaldehyde poisoning, was reason enough to conduct an internal investigation.
“Under OSHA,” Charles Whitaker said, “Fluor was obligated to run some tests.” It did, and a second Fluor representative testified it was not formaldehyde that caused the illness, but galvanized welding fumes, according to the Courthouse News Service.
That was in May 2006. Whitaker testified in the third day of a trial in New Orleans, La., that contends a travel trailer manufactured by Gulf Stream Coach Inc., Nappanee, Ind., of sickening residents of FEMA trailers with formaldehyde fumes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Fluor was awarded a FEMA contract after the hurricanes for disaster response services, including “hauling and installing” FEMA trailers. Fluor tested just under a dozen trailers for formaldehyde fumes in May 2006, and found the highest levels of the toxin in three trailers, at 2.0 parts per million; most of the trailers allegedly showed only trace amounts of formaldehyde.
In testimony on Monday, former government toxicologist Dr. Chris De Rosa said that a level such as Fluor reported approximates a high-end natural occurrence of formaldehyde in a nonsmoking building. A high-end regular occurrence of this organic fume would be 2.2 ppm, De Rosa said.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and, according to testimonies of toxicologists during this trial, because it is a naturally occurring organic compound it is present in trace amounts in many manufactures materials, from fingernail polish to particle board, and occurs in the human bloodstream at a rate that can be as high as 2.0 ppm.
The two Fluor employees’ testimonies were not in agreement about whether the findings of their tests were turned over to FEMA, though a string of emails from spring 2006 shows that once Fluor employees became aware that trailers might contain hazardous levels of formaldehyde, Fluor workers in charge of health and safety produced research on formaldehyde in a matter of hours.
One Fluor environmental scientist wrote in an e-mail to colleagues: “To the best of my knowledge we have had no information provided to us by FEMA regarding formaldehyde.”
An e-mail to Fluor workers included the statement that “the most significant source of formaldehyde may be pressed wood,” such as the wood used inside FEMA trailers.
Gulf Stream’s Chairman of the Board Jim Shea testified on Tuesday that he thought it was FEMA’s responsibility to address formaldehyde problems, if any: “We went to FEMA. We met with them in Washington,” Shea said. “We offered to assist them in any way we could. They asked for input on an informational packet that they were assembling. … Yeah, we took action.”
Shea added, “I look at FEMA as the federal government and I felt the federal government had the expertise” to handle the issue. “I feel like we did the right thing in a fast-moving environment when there was a lot that we didn’t know.”
In addition to helping FEMA compile of informational pamphlets, Shea said he designed the “Fantastic Fan,” strong enough to combat the odor and fumes of formaldehyde. He suggested offering the fan “to complainants, should they complain to the government about formaldehyde.”
FEMA did not take up the idea, Shea said.
The trial is expected to last two weeks. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is presiding.
For the first time since Hurricane Katrina left tens of thousands of families living in FEMA trailers, a federal jury heard allegations Monday (Sept. 14) in New Orleans that the government-issued shelters exposed Gulf Coast storm victims to hazardous formaldehyde fumes.
A New Orleans woman suing trailer maker Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc. claims her son’s asthma was aggravated by elevated levels of formaldehyde in their trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the Associated Press.
Gulf Stream’s own tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in its trailers in early 2006, but the company failed to warn plaintiffs Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper, about the risks, said plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee.
“What you don’t know can hurt you, and this case proves that 100 times over,” Buzbee said in his opening statements Monday.
Buzbee and company lawyers urged jurors to consider different standards for what could be safe levels of formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in construction materials that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.
Buzbee said Alexander and Cooper were exposed to formaldehyde levels that were multiple times higher than those determined to be safe by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Gulf Stream attorney Andrew Weinstock said formaldehyde levels in the plaintiffs’ trailer were many times lower than standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“They are citing to you the wrong standard,” Weinstock told the jury of five men and four women.
The federal government isn’t a defendant in this first “bellwether” trial, although it has been sued in hundreds of other cases over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled last month that a two-year statute of limitations bars Cooper’s claims against the government. Plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to appeal that ruling.
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.
“I believe this will be the most important case that will be tried in Louisiana this year,” Buzbee said.
Jurors heard videotaped testimony from former ATSDR official Christopher De Rosa, who was one of the government’s top toxicologists. In an e-mail to his superiors, De Rosa had warned of signs that formaldehyde in trailers threatened to become a “public health catastrophe.”
During his taped testimony earlier this year, De Rosa choked up when he recalled worrying that children were suffering because government scientists weren’t reacting quickly enough to formaldehyde concerns.
“And how people could stand by and do the politically expedient thing is beyond me,” he said.
Alexander and Cooper, now 12 years old, moved into the trailer in May 2006 after Katrina damaged their home in eastern New Orleans. They lived in the unit for 19 months, moving out shortly after Alexander learned of formaldehyde concerns.
Erika Alexander, Cooper’s 15-year-old sister, testified that her eyes and nose burned and she started getting nosebleeds when they moved into the trailer. She said her mother “didn’t know what was the smell or what was going on.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers accuse Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream and other trailer makers of using shoddy building materials and methods in a rush to meet FEMA’s unprecedented demand for temporary housing after the 2005 hurricanes.
But the trailer occupied by Alexander and Cooper was produced in 2004.
Weinstock said FEMA has been purchasing trailers from Gulf Stream since 1992 and didn’t document a formaldehyde complaint about one of its units until 2006.
“FEMA knew more about what was going on than Gulf Stream,” Weinstock said.
Weinstock, who said Cooper’s asthma was first diagnosed when he was 3, denied that the boy’s condition worsened after he moved into the trailer. Alexander took her son off a steroid treatment for asthma during a two-year period before Katrina, he added.
Weinstock also said Alexander didn’t mention her formaldehyde concerns to one of Cooper’s doctors until April 2009, after they had been picked to be the first trial’s plaintiffs.
Fluor Enterprises had a contract to install FEMA trailers. Charles Penot, a lawyer for Fluor, said the company hired expert subcontractors to haul and install the units.
“That’s what FEMA hired us to do. That’s what Fluor did,” he said.