NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The mother of an asthmatic boy who lived for 2 years in a FEMA trailer after Hurricane Katrina ended her testimony on an emotional note Monday. “I feel guilty because as a mother I am not supposed to … put my children in harm’s way,” Alana Alexander said, in tears. “And had I known everything about it I wouldn’t have. So … you could say it is my fault. Even though I didn’t know.”
Gulf Stream Coach, Fluor Enterprises and the United States are accused of poisoning hurricane victims with toxic formaldehyde fumes from the trailers.
Alexander also has an adolescent daughter. She is one of 45 plaintiffs in the first federal trial alleging injuries from toxic fumes in the FEMA trailers. The trial entered its sixth day Monday.
When plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee asked Alexander what she has told her son, Chris Cooper, about the increased likelihood he will develop cancer, having spent more than 2 years living in a trailer with toxic levels of formaldehyde, Alexander wept.
A doctor has estimated that residents of FEMA trailers are 17 percent more likely to develop cancer because of it.
“You don’t talk to Chris about it?” Buzbee asked.
Alexander responded, “I feel guilty because as a mother I am not supposed to … put my children in harm’s way. And had I known everything about it I wouldn’t have. So if this in some way affects his music, or Erica’s having children, you could say it is my fault. Even though I didn’t know.”
Buzbee said Chris’s severe asthma is a result living in the formaldehyde-tainted trailer made by Gulf Stream Coach. Gulf Stream found elevated levels of formaldehyde in its trailers in early 2006, but failed to warn residents about the risks, Buzbee said.
Hundreds of thousands of refuges from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were moved into FEMA trailers after the storms ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Fluor, the distributor, hauled and installed the trailers through contracts with FEMA. Plaintiffs in the civil trial accuse Fluor of negligence in installing the trailers, damaging the frames, and thereby exacerbating the formaldehyde problems.
Fluor received $1.15 billion in no-bid federal contracts after Hurricane Katrina.
In testimony during the first week of the trial, Dr. Christopher De Rosa said that exposure to formaldehyde increases the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer and can be detrimental to reproductive health.
In testimony on Monday, Dr. James Kornberg said that in studies of occupational exposure to high levels of formaldehyde, 78 percent of those studied showed signs of cell proliferation. Cancer is cell proliferation unchecked.
Speaking of Alexander’s son, Dr. Kornberg said, “There was very clear evidence that his asthma has worsened as a result of formaldehyde exposure in the trailer.” Kornberg said Chris also shows signs of vocal cord dysfunction.
Chris’s pre-Katrina medical records were destroyed in the 6 feet of water that inundated his pediatrician’s New Orleans East office.
In cross-examining Kornberg, Gulf Stream attorney Andrew Weinstock reiterated that Chris’s medical records had been destroyed. “Fine,” Weinstock told Kornberg. “So you don’t know if (Chris’s) asthma is worse, but you’ve gone through a lot of tests showing how it could be worse.”
Chris’s New Orleans pediatrician, Dr. Janet Barnes, said she has seen the boy since he came to her as a 4-year-old with asthma in 2000. Barnes said on Monday that she remembers Chris from before the storm and, that his symptoms from 2007 through 2009 make her think his condition is persistent, rather than occasional.
Weinstock speculated that regular chest X-rays might do more damage to patients than exposure to formaldehyde in FEMA trailers. Weinstock said last week that formaldehyde levels in the Alexanders’ trailer were lower than standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Chris Cooper took the stand at the end of the day Monday. Dressed in his McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts uniform – a purple shirt and green hoodie – Cooper said he enjoys playing football and video games and hanging out with his family. He also enjoys band, a hobby that is new to him since Katrina.
The trial, which is expected to take about two weeks, is presided over by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt.