The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt for immunity from lawsuits over what plaintiffs' lawyers and the Sierra Club called "hazardous levels" of formaldehyde in government-issued trailers. Engelhardt is presiding over a lawsuit against FEMA. Plaintiffs claim the government knew about the dangerous toxicity of plywood used in trailer construction but continued to allow hurricane victims to inhabit the structures, despite independent toxicology tests revealing five times the tolerable amount of formaldehyde in the structures.
Becky Gillette, director of the Formaldehyde Campaign division of the Sierra Club, said the government has no right to duck responsibility after years of ignoring the warnings.
"The government should bear responsibility for harming these people. We tried to tell them early on that these trailers were testing positive for formaldehyde and it took them nearly two years before they even acknowledged a problem," Gillette said. "That's two years that tens of thousands of families were exposed to excess levels of formaldehyde."
FEMA's public relations office in Washington had not yet issued a statement regarding its request.
FEMA trailer residents began complaining of headaches, bleeding sinuses, and dying pets almost immediately after the federal government distributed the trailers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Mississippi Chapter Sierra Club financed tests in 2006, finding 30 of 32 FEMA trailers registering unsafe formaldehyde levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also conducted tests revealing high levels of formaldehyde in 2006, though FEMA claimed it didn't know how to interpret those results. The agency only acknowledged high levels of the contaminant in 2008, two years after the Sierra Club had first submitted to them its initial results.
"It's outrageous that the government wants to bear no responsibility," Gillette said. "It becomes landlord to 100,000 people, puts them in unsafe dwellings and then refuses for years to acknowledge a problemit dares to try to say, 'it's not our fault.Ҕ
Engelhardt had not rendered a decision on the motion on Wednesday.