FEMA Announces Trailer Air Testing Plans

The Associated Press
Friday, July 20, 2007; 10:03 PM

BAKER, La. -- Federal agencies will test air quality in trailers housing hurricane victims, an official said Friday, a day after documents revealed that government lawyers discouraged investigating reports of high formaldehyde levels in them.

First on Saturday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin distributing a fact sheet on formaldehyde and housing to the occupants of each travel trailer and mobile home the agency issued in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, said R. David Paulison, FEMA's administrator.

"This fact sheet will provide basic information about formaldehyde, its possible medical effects and contacts for further assistance," he said.

Then on Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Health Affairs will conduct a preliminary field study that will test the air in "FEMA-purchased housing units under real-life conditions," Paulison said.

"We are also looking into engineering solutions that may be available effectively to remove environmental pollutants from the trailers," he said.

FEMA provided more than 120,000 trailers to people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Thousands of people still live in them, mostly in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

On Thursday, documents released to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed FEMA lawyers discouraged the agency from pursuing reports that the trailers had dangerous levels of formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems.

Residents of Renaissance Village, a FEMA trailer park in Baker, said they have no proof the trailers are causing illness. Wilbert Ross, 60, had asthma and emphysema before Katrina, conditions that have worsened since he moved into the trailer _ a common complaint among the community's residents.

"Here, you have a whole community that has health problems," Ross said.

During Thursday's hearing in the House, Paulison apologized to trailer occupants. Earlier this week, the agency had issued a statement saying air quality in the trailers is safe if they are properly ventilated.

The formaldehyde complaints had sparked lawsuits before the congressional hearing, and more are likely.

Justin Woods, a New Orleans lawyer who filed a lawsuit that accuses FEMA of exposing trailer occupants to the chemical, said he expects an "onslaught" of similar litigation.

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