updated 11/17/2007 5:53:17 PM ET 2007-11-17T22:53:17

A group of hurricane victims wants a federal judge to order air quality tests in their government-issued trailers after the Federal Emergency Management Agency postponed its plans to check for hazardous fumes.

Federal scientists were scheduled to start testing for levels of formaldehyde in Mississippi trailers Nov. 2, but FEMA said it needed more time to prepare.

Formaldehyde, a common preservative and embalming fluid, sometimes is found in building materials used in manufactured homes. It can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Attorneys for trailer occupants in Louisiana claim FEMA’s delay in testing the trailers is jeopardizing the health of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Without the court’s intervention, “FEMA will continue to delay, and this national public health emergency will continue unabated,” the storm victims’ attorneys wrote in court papers filed Friday.

“It’s important to understand what the level of exposure is, particularly in regard to children,” said Roy Rodney Jr., a New Orleans attorney who filed the motion for an injunction. “Children are the most at risk, more so than adults.”

U.S. District Judge Kurt Englehardt didn’t immediately rule on the request.

Lawsuits pending
Hundreds of Gulf Coast residents are suing trailer manufacturers for allegedly providing FEMA with poorly constructed units contaminated by formaldehyde. Several of those federal lawsuits in Louisiana were consolidated Oct. 24 and transferred to Englehardt, who scheduled a Jan. 18 initial hearing.

FEMA spokesman Michael Widomski, who would not comment on the litigation, said a date to start the air quality tests has not been set. The agency continues to work with scientist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he said.

The storm victims’ request for an injunction also asks FEMA to immediately comply with any trailer occupant’s request to move out of a unit and into alternative housing.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, more than 48,000 FEMA trailers were occupied this month by victims of the 2005 hurricanes. Reacting to residents’ health concerns, FEMA has moved hundreds of families in both states out of trailers and into apartments, hotel rooms or other temporary housing.

FEMA also has temporarily suspended the sale of its used trailers and says the units won’t be used to shelter victims of future disasters until the safety concerns are resolved.

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