NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A representative from Fluor Corp. testified Wednesday that despite being told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to let FEMA worry about formaldehyde testing in FEMA trailers, a Fluor employee’s illness, attributed to formaldehyde poisoning, was reason enough to conduct an internal investigation. “Under OSHA,” Charles Whitaker said, “Fluor was obligated to run some tests.” It did, and a second Fluor representative testified it was not formaldehyde that caused the illness, but galvanized welding fumes.
That was in May 2006. Whitaker, who worked in the marketing department of Fluor, according to the company’s website, testified in the third day of the trial that charges trailer manufacturers with poisoning residents of FEMA trailers with formaldehyde fumes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Fluor was awarded a FEMA contract after the hurricanes for disaster response services, including “hauling and installing” FEMA trailers. Fluor tested just under a dozen trailers for formaldehyde fumes in May 2006, said a trial witness, and found the highest levels of the toxin in three trailers, at 2.0 parts per million; most of the trailers allegedly showed only trace amounts of formaldehyde.
In testimony on Monday, former government toxicologist Dr. Chris De Rosa said that a level such as Fluor reported approximates a high-end natural occurrence of formaldehyde in a nonsmoking building. A high-end regular occurrence of this organic fume would be 2.2 ppm, De Rosa said.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and, according to testimonies of toxicologists during this trial, because it is a naturally occurring organic compound it is present in trace amounts in many manufactures materials, from fingernail polish to particle board, and occurs in the human bloodstream at a rate that can be as high as 2.0 ppm.
The two Fluor employees’ testimonies were not in agreement about whether the findings of their tests were turned over to FEMA, though a string of emails from spring 2006 shows that once Fluor employees became aware that trailers might contain hazardous levels of formaldehyde, Fluor workers in charge of health and safety produced research on formaldehyde in a matter of hours.
One Fluor environmental scientist wrote in an email to colleagues: “To the best of my knowledge we have had no information provided to us by FEMA regarding formaldehyde.”
An email to Fluor workers included the statement that “the most significant source of formaldehyde may be pressed wood.” Pressed wood was used inside FEMA trailers.
The trailers that were installed by Fluor on behalf of FEMA were actually manufactured by Gulf Stream Coach.
In earlier trial testimony, Gulf Stream Coach’s Chairman of the Board Jim Shea testified on that he thought it was FEMA’s responsibility to address formaldehyde problems, if any: “We went to FEMA. We met with them in Washington,” Shea said. “We offered to assist them in any way we could. They asked for input on an informational packet that they were assembling. … Yeah, we took action.”
Shea added, “I look at FEMA as the federal government and I felt the federal government had the expertise” to handle the issue. “I feel like we did the right thing in a fast-moving environment when there was a lot that we didn’t know.”
In addition to helping FEMA compile of informational pamphlets, Shea said he designed the “Fantastic Fan,” strong enough to combat the odor and fumes of formaldehyde. He suggested offering the fan “to complainants, should they complain to the government about formaldehyde.”
FEMA did not take up the idea, Shea said.
In quiet moments between witnesses Wednesday afternoon, members of the packed courtroom shivered and talked in low tones. One man speculated that the air-conditioning on high to help keep the jury awake.
The trial is expected to last two weeks. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is presiding.