FEMA to start testing air quality in trailers next week

Published 2:27 pm Wednesday, December 12, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Air-quality tests on the government-issued trailers housing thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane victims are scheduled to begin next Wednesday, nearly two months after the Federal Emergency Management Agency postponed them.

Harvey Johnson, FEMA’s deputy administrator, disclosed the new start date for the tests during a hearing Wednesday in Washington before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, a FEMA spokeswoman said.

Officials from FEMA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were expected to outline the new testing plans Thursday at news conferences in New Orleans and Washington.

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Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the homeland security committee, said he is pleased that FEMA is beginning the tests “after much delay.”

“Given the importance of ensuring the health and safety of those living in trailers supplied by FEMA, it is disappointing and embarrassing that (it) has taken FEMA so long to get to this critical point,” he said in a statement.

On Nov. 2, CDC scientists were scheduled to start testing FEMA trailers in Mississippi for levels of formaldehyde, a common preservative and embalming fluid found in building materials for manufactured homes.

FEMA postponed the tests, however, saying the agency needed more time to prepare.

Many trailer occupants are blaming ailments on formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Hundreds of trailer occupants in Mississippi and Louisiana have sued some of the companies that made the units for FEMA after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the Gulf Coast more than two years ago.

On Nov. 29, a federal judge in New Orleans ordered FEMA and its top administrator, R. David Paulison, to submit a “detailed plan” for testing the trailers for formaldehyde levels.

Paulison and CDC director Julie Gerberding are scheduled to discuss those testing plans Thursday at the press briefing in Washington.

FEMA 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 health concerns are resolved. In the meantime, the agency has moved hundreds of Gulf Coast families out of trailers and into apartments, hotel rooms or other temporary housing.