A federal judge has ruled that the federal government is not immune from lawsuits claiming many Gulf Coast hurricane victims were exposed to potentially dangerous fumes while living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt cited evidence that FEMA delayed investigating complaints about formaldehyde levels in its trailers because the agency felt it might be held legally responsible. Formaldehyde, which is used as a preservative, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen. Judge Engelhardt said FEMA learned of the formaldehyde concerns around March 2006, several months after Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005, but responded by “sticking their heads in the sand” rather than ordering air-quality tests. The judge wrote in his order that:
The evidence shows that FEMA initially ignored the potential formaldehyde problem and neglected to conduct testing in fear that such testing would ‘imply’ FEMA’s ownership of the issue.
FEMA contended that the agency is immune from lawsuits when it responds to a disaster. But Judge Engelhardt said ignoring potential health problems associated with FEMA trailers wouldn’t be a “permissible exercise of policy judgment.” There are about 800 storm victims who are named Plaintiffs in the cases. The judge is being asked to certify a class action suit on behalf of thousands of people who lived in FEMA trailers after the 2005 hurricanes. So far, that request hasn’t been ruled on. The Plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages in the case. The lawsuits also accuse trailer makers of providing FEMA with shoddily-built units in a rush to meet the agency’s unprecedented demand for emergency housing. Formaldehyde levels were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
Source: Associated Press
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