Image: Trailer resident Wilbert Ross
Tim Mueller  /  AP
Renaissance Village trailer park resident Wilbert Ross stands at the doorway of his Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer Friday, in Baker, La.  "What's the long-term effects of living here? We don't know," said Ross. 
By Associated Press Writer
updated 7/20/2007 10:25:40 PM ET 2007-07-21T02:25:40

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.

More lawsuits expected
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.

Woods represents the family of Desiree Collins, 47, a Renaissance Village resident who died July 2, about a week after she was found to have lung cancer.

On behalf of Collins' husband and children, Woods asked a federal judge to certify a class-action lawsuit -- not against FEMA, but against companies that sold trailers to the agency. Collins said his suit is one of several in Louisiana -- none of which has yet been certified class-action.

"It's still at a very early stage in the litigation," he said.

In May, the Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club issued a nonscientific report saying its tests revealed high formaldehyde emissions in dozens of trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Chapter co-chair Becky Gillette said she is concerned that FEMA's response to the problem appears limited to conducting more tests.

‘Far down the line’
"The remedy is still just far down the line for the tens of thousands of folks still living in the trailers," Gillette said.

Formaldehyde is used in some materials in the trailers. It can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and skin, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

FEMA said it will open on Saturday a toll-free hot line to answer questions about the formaldehyde issue and associated FEMA housing concerns, he said. The toll-free number is 866-562-2381.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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