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Suit claims trailer makers exposed storm victims to formaldehyde

The suit, filed Tuesday on behalf of more than 500 trailer and mobile home occupants in Louisiana, accuses several trailer manufacturers of using inferior building materials in a profit-driven rush to build trailers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Thousands of Louisiana residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita were exposed to dangerous levels of formaldehyde by living in poorly constructed, government-issued trailers and mobile homes, a newly filed federal lawsuit alleges.

FEMA, which isn't named as a defendant in the suit, has agreed to have the air quality tested in some of the trailers that have been occupied by Gulf Coast residents since the 2005 hurricanes.

In Washington last month, House lawmakers released documents that indicate FEMA lawyers discouraged the agency from investigating whether its trailers had dangerous formaldehyde levels.The agency also has temporarily suspended the sale and deployment of trailers while federal authorities probe allegations that formaldehyde fumes in trailers are responsible for occupants' illnesses.

Katrina and Rita have spawned several lawsuits in Louisiana that seek to certify class actions against FEMA trailer manufacturers for allegedly jeopardizing the health of occupants.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans by a Galveston, Texas-based law firm accuses trailer makers of cutting corners in order to quickly fill a trailer shortage after the storms.

Only 14,000 trailers were available when the federal government contracted to purchase more than 100,000 units of temporary housing after Katrina and Rita, according to the lawsuit. To meet that demand, manufacturers set up assembly lines and produced trailers in as little as 10 minutes, the suit alleges.

"This was done without the benefits of Defendants' usual quality control," states the 63-page lawsuit, which isn't seeking class-action certification.

Trailer makers also allegedly used wood and adhesives that emit high levels of formaldehyde because they couldn't find enough material from their "usual suppliers of low-formaldehyde emitting material," the suit claims.

Trailer makers were in a "rush to profit from a disaster without regard for safety," said Anthony Buzbee, a lawyer for the more than 500 Louisiana plaintiffs.

Fourteen companies that supplied FEMA with trailers are named as defendants in the suits. Messages left with several of those companies weren't immediately returned.

FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker declined to comment on the lawsuit. He referred to congressional testimony last month by FEMA chief R. David Paulison, who apologized to the trailer occupants and said the agency "made the best decisions it could with the information it had."

Buzbee said his firm also plans to file suit against trailer makers on behalf of about 650 trailer occupants in Mississippi and 200 in eastern Texas.

"The manufacturers are the ones who have the expertise. They're the ones who built these trailers, which in some cases had four times the maximum allowable level of formaldehyde in them," Buzbee added.

Shelia Gordon, one of Buzbee's clients, said her 10-year-old daughter, Angel, was diagnosed with leukemia nearly a year after the family moved into a FEMA trailer on their storm-damaged property in St. Charles Parish, La.

Gordon and her lawyers suspect that formaldehyde is to blame for the girl's illness.

"My daughter was perfectly healthy before this," she said. "Her whole life is taken away from her. I just don't want this to happen to another family member

Michael Kinzelman
the Associated Press
August 8, 2007
New Orleans