NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Four years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, a bellwether trial began Monday in which refugees from the storms blame their respiratory disease on toxic fumes from FEMA-issued trailers. After jury selection, the day concluded in dramatic fashion. “Kids were presenting at hospitals with clinical signs of formaldehyde toxicity,” Dr. Christopher De Rosa said in videotaped testimony. “They were being taken to hospitals … with asthma attacks … and returned to the environment that created them.”
De Rosa, formerly one of the government’s top toxicologists, choked up when asked in the video why he had written an email to superiors notifying them of an “impending public health disaster.”
De Rosa, a former Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) official, allegedly was retaliated against and demoted for whistleblowing after he wrote the email in question.
De Rose said he wrote the email and sent it because of the “kids.”
After testifying that “kids were presenting at hospitals with clinical signs of formaldehyde toxicity … and returned to the environment that created them,” De Rosa asked for a moment to compose himself. The video stopped and started again, and De Rosa continued in a steadier voice.
“It was a concern for the parents,” he said, “a concern for the children. That an entire agency of health-care professionals could stand by while kids are being taken in with asthmatic attacks … and how people could stand by and do the political expedient thing, is beyond me.”
In his opening statement, plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee called the trial “the most important case that will be tried in Louisiana this year.”
“What you don’t know can hurt you, and this case proves that 100 times over,” Buzbee said.
Buzbee represents plaintiffs Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper. Buzbee said Cooper suffers from severe asthma as a result of toxic levels of formaldehyde in their trailer, made by defendants Gulf Stream Coach. Buzbee said the formaldehyde levels in the trailer were many times higher than those determined to be safe by the ATSDR.
Gulf Stream’s own tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in its trailers in early 2006, but the company failed to warn the plaintiffs about the risks, Buzbee said.
But Gulf Stream attorney Andrew Weinstock said formaldehyde levels in the plaintiffs’ trailer were lower than standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“They are citing to you the wrong standard,” Weinstock told the jury of five men and four women.
In the months after the 2005 hurricanes, hundreds of thousands of people whose houses had been destroyed by floods and winds were moved into FEMA trailers.
In his video testimony, De Rosa said he strongly disagreed with much of the information FEMA and the trailer manufacturers relied upon in health risks associated with formaldehyde.
FEMA continued to cite the pre-2006 International Agency for Research on Carcinogen’s guideline, which called formaldehyde a “possible” carcinogen, though since 2006 the IARC has relabeled formaldehyde a “known” carcinogen, De Rosa said.
The doctor said the data on leukemia follows the same pattern. Before 2006, studies suggested little connection between that cancer and formaldehyde exposure, while since 2006 a conclusive connection has been drawn, De Rosa said.
He said that in addition to being a carcinogen, formaldehyde affects reproductive health.
Although FEMA trailers, which are about half the size of a standard U.S. living room, were meant to serve as temporary housing, lack of affordable housing kept thousands of storm victims from finding better homes well into the middle of 2008, when the government demanded that all people still living in FEMA trailers move out and relinquish their trailers.
As of mid-February 2007, almost 2½ years after the hurricanes, an estimated 90,000 people were living in FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Mississippi and Louisiana lead the nation in “severe” rates of childhood poverty: 12 percent of Mississippi children and 13 percent of Louisiana kids live in poverty.
The trial, which is expected to take about two weeks, is presided over by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt.