More than 500 South Louisiana residents who contend that living in government-issued travel trailers since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has exposed them to dangerously high levels of formaldehyde have targeted the trailer makers in a federal lawsuit.
The suit alleges the manufacturers used substandard materials from foreign countries in a rush to fill Federal Emergency Management Agency orders for more than 120,000 trailers.
Among other things, the petition asks that the companies be forced to remove all formaldehyde-containing materials from the trailers and arrange for medical monitoring to detect whether formaldehyde exposure has caused the plaintiffs any health problems.
Formaldehyde is a compound often used as a finisher in manufactured products, including plywood, particleboard and other materials from which mobile homes and travel trailers are built. Because it vaporizes at high temperatures, people living in tropical climates and poorly ventilated spaces, such as trailers, could be vulnerable to exposure.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, of Galveston, Texas, who is representing the 500-plus trailer occupants in the case, said their biggest problem is that "when they get medical treatment, they have to go right back to these trailers." At many trailer villages, he added, residents are scared and many are sleeping, with their children, outside the trailers.
"Formaldehyde exposure is most dangerous to children and the elderly," he said.
FEMA is not a defendant in the lawsuit, but spokesman Ronnie Simpson said the agency stands ready to help the trailer residents.
"In addition to routing them to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to answer some of their questions, we'll be happy to move them into available rental properties to get them out of their trailer. Putting them in rental property helps them along," he said.
Buzbee's clients have filed the latest in a string of such complaints that began making their way to courts here and in other cities after some hurricane victims began complaining more than a year ago that they had nosebleeds, itchy eyes and running noses while living in their travel trailers.
The new lawsuit follows testimony during a congressional committee hearing last month that FEMA officials, out of concern about liability, discouraged testing the trailers for formaldehyde. Information the committee received showed FEMA issued assurances that the trailers were safe if occupants opened windows and regularly used exhaust fans and air conditioners.
Days after the hearing, government workers began distributing fliers to caution the roughly 45,000 Louisiana families still living in the trailers about possible health effects from formaldehyde. It gave a referral phone number for anyone with questions.
Meanwhile, in response to complaints about formaldehyde emissions, the CDC began preparing late last month to do a study on air quality inside travel trailers along the Gulf Coast. A CDC spokeswoman said the study would look into whether formaldehyde levels and other irritants, such as mold, are linked to health problems.
But Buzbee said that for his clients, "The pressing problem is to fix the problem we have. Once we fix the problem, then we can go back and figure out how it came to happen, so that it doesn't happen again."
Unlike other lawsuits over the formaldehyde emissions, the one Buzbee is handling does not seek class-action status.
Chemical causing illness, residents say
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
August 9, 2007
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
August 9, 2007 Thursday
BYLINE: By Susan Finch, Staff writer
SECTION: METRO; Pg. 1