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.
In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow to address early signs of formaldehyde problems in emergency housing and overstated actions it was taking to address the problem, according to a report released Thursday (July 23) by a federal inspector general.
The highly critical 80-page report paints the picture of an agency that was overly concerned with its image to the detriment of the public, according to CNN International. FEMA, the report says, reacted to the formaldehyde health threat only after media attention “grew to disturbing levels” and once delayed testing so the agency could “develop a public communications strategy” for the public and the media.
Although federal tests found formaldehyde in emergency housing in October of 2005, just two months after Katrina, most of the tests weren’t done until two years later, during winter when formaldehyde levels are lowest, the report says.
“Because of the delays, the test results may have underestimated the extent of formaldehyde exposure that residents had experienced,” it says.
The report is the latest to address the federal government’s response to Katrina and Rita, when FEMA faced the biggest challenge in the agency’s history, trying to relocate many of the estimated 700,000 people displaced by the Gulf Coast storms. Some people were housed in hotels and apartments. But others were placed in more than 200,000 travel trailers, mobile homes and recreational park trailers.
Almost immediately, some residents began complaining of health problems, attributing it to formaldehyde, a strong-smelling gas that federal authorities say is believed to cause cancer.
In October 2005, shortly after the storms, federal officials cautioned government workers to limit their time in travel trailers, but a similar warning was not give to the trailers’ new inhabitants. The following March, a Biloxi, Mississippi, television station reported on a local couple who were having formaldehyde problems with their FEMA trailer.
The inspector general’s report chronicles initial efforts to address the problem.
“FEMA officials did make some attempts to identify the extent of the formaldehyde problem, but they did so by trying to get an accurate tally of complaints from occupants rather than testing occupied units,” the report says.
The inspector general’s report says that, in hindsight, a number of factors created a “perfect storm” for development of formaldehyde problems after Katrina. One prime factor, the report said, was that before Katrina and Rita, “complaints about formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers had not surfaced and, therefore, FEMA officials were unaware that this should have been an issue of concern.”
Among other factors:
- All of the units were some form of manufactured housing, which tend to have more manufactured wood products that can emit the gas.
- Most of the trailers were hurried from factories to the Gulf, and didn’t have time to release dangerous gases before being occupied.
- The trailers were placed in hot, humid climates, increasing formaldehyde levels.
- High numbers of children, the elderly and people with prior health problems were living in FEMA trailers. All three groups have heightened sensitivity to formaldehyde.
The report was released by Richard Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is FEMA’s parent department.
In the report, FEMA officials said the document “does not adequately emphasize the compelling fact that there were no established formaldehyde standards for travel trailers.” The inspector general agreed that there is a lack of standards.
In a statement Thursday, FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said FEMA “agrees with the Inspector General’s findings” and has already made great progress in developing policies and actions to address concerns about formaldehyde emissions.
“As a result, FEMA and our partners are far better positioned to respond to the temporary housing needs of disaster survivors than we were several years ago.
Among other things, FEMA is testing several new forms of relocatable housing at a site in Maryland. It also is requiring manufacturers to have third-party testers conduct air quality testing to ensure units comply with new specifications.
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.”
Sixty-six people in Alabama’s Mobile County filed federal lawsuits on Tuesday (June 30) against the manufacturers of travel trailers that they say exposed them to dangerous levels of formaldehyde after Hurricane Katrina.
The lawsuits join about 23,000 others that have been filed in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The Alabama suits name seven manufacturers, along with contractors who won no-bid contracts to install the trailers, according to the Mobile Press-Register.
The suits filed Tuesday — along with another 40-plus civil complaints that attorneys plan to file by Aug. 1 — will be transferred to a federal judge in New Orleans who has been appointed to oversee all of the travel trailer litigation along the Gulf Coast.
They’re clean, shutterless and decorated with a rainbow of beige hues. They’re mobile housing built for future disaster victims and, so far, have safe levels of formaldehyde, according to the Associated Press.
The six newly designed homes – including one unit made by TL Industries Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., and a travel trailer prototype made by Texas-based Frontier RV Inc. – were rolled out last week by federal officials to replace the much-criticized travel trailers used in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The units – including one travel trailer – were built as part of a program to develop new disaster housing solutions for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
After Katrina, 1 million people lost their homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. FEMA sent thousands of temporary homes into the region only to learn later of high levels of formaldehyde, a chemical used in the glue for building materials that can lead to breathing problems and is believed to cause cancer.
The new models – which range in price from $45,000 to $75,000 – were toured by federal officials in Emmitsburg, Md. The trailers have been tested and meet FEMA standards for safe formaldehyde levels.
Students at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg will live in the units and test them for the next six to 12 months, said Jack Schuback, the FEMA official overseeing the project.
One thing they will watch is whether formaldehyde levels increase over time. Schuback said cooking and smoking can sometimes increase the level of formaldehyde in the air.
There is no industry standard for the amount of formaldehyde allowed in travel trailers. The government sets standards for indoor air quality for materials used to build mobile homes, not for travel trailers.
Government tests in 2007 found an average of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air in FEMA trailers issued after the 2005 hurricanes. FEMA’s standard for the new trailers is 16 parts formaldehyde or less per billion parts of air.
Getting these units built without using much formaldehyde was one of the challenges, Schuback said.
One of the prototypes – the D&D Hybrid park model – is two bedrooms, one bathroom with walls insulated with 100% sheep wool. The wool absorbs the formaldehyde, said Bill Hanblin, D&D CEO.
The Frontier RV travel trailer is the first to have a device that circulates fresh outside air into the trailer, said Ryan Buras, a housing program specialist at FEMA. This one-bedroom trailer is handicap-accessible with a bathroom three times larger than the typical travel trailer bathroom.
The government’s disaster housing strategy says disaster victims can be housed in trailers only as a last resort, even though Bush officials promised to never use them again. The strategy says that if mobile homes are used, they must meet FEMA’s new standard and disaster victims can use them no longer than six months.
The California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC) is taking a bold pro-environmental stand with regard to formaldehyde in holding tank treatments by asking three of the nation’s leading distributors of aftermarket parts and accessories, Camping World Inc., Lincolnshire, Ill., Coast Distribution System Inc., Morgan Hill, Calif., and Stag Parkway Inc., Atlanta, Ga., to halt shipments of chemicals containing the controversial chemical into the Golden State.
In letters to the CEOs of the three firms, Debbie Sipe, CalARVC executive director, wrote, “Several studies have concluded that RV holding tank products that contain formaldehyde are harmful to consumers, while posing a significant threat to groundwater quality. Campground operators have also learned that while chemically based holding tank products effectively control sewage odors, they also destroy the bacteria that’s needed to break down the wastes contained in septic systems. Septic tank failures ultimately occur, costing campground operators tens of thousands of dollars in septic system repairs.”
She noted that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) posted a fact sheet in January alerting consumers to these risks, while encouraging them to purchase holding tank products that do not contain formaldehyde.
Given these environmental hazards, she continued, CalARVC asked the three firms to refrain from selling these products in California and instead market environmentally friendly holding tank products, as recommended by the DTSC.
Sipe urged the companies to educate their customers about the dangers of using chemically based holding tank products.
“We think (the three firms) could make a positive statement on this issue by announcing its decision to ban these products on or before April 22, when our nation celebrates Earth Day,” she said. “We look forward to receiving your thoughts on this matter at your earliest opportunity.”