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Formaldehyde-Laden FEMA Trailers May Be Headed to Haiti

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The trailer industry and lawmakers have asked FEMA to send thousands of empty, Katrina-era trailers to Haiti. Opponents of the idea say sending the formaldehyde-emitting trailers is a self-serving attempt to dump shoddy U.S. products on the poor. U.S. citizens made homeless by hurricanes have filed thousands of lawsuits, and multiple class actions, claiming the trailers made them sick.

Days after Haiti's 7.0 earthquake left up to 200,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, Mississippi state Senator Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport, was among the first to say the 100,000 trailers, bought by the government after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, could be shipped to Haiti for shelter.

If the trailers are "being staged in Mississippi and there is no apparent use for them," Hewes told the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald, "there's a great need for them down in Haiti and there's no need for them to sit here in Mississippi."

"If I had the choice between no shelter and having the opportunity of living in a shelter that might have some fumes, I know what I'd choose," Hewe told The Associated Press.

"If these trailers were good enough for Mississippians, I would think they were good enough for folks down in Haiti as well."

The trailers were bought by the government to house hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane refugees in 2005, but after people got sick - and by some accounts, died - tests found the trailers contained high levels of formaldehyde, a chemical found in building materials that can cause respiratory problems and cancer. Many of the trailers have sat empty for years, and many are damaged.

Opponents of the idea say that formaldehyde-laden particle board inside the trailers poses higher risks of toxicity in hot, humid climates - such as in the American South and Haiti. The wood swells with heat and sweats with moisture, increasing emissions of toxic formaldehyde fumes.

"Just go ahead and sign their death certificate," Paul Nelson of Coden, Ala., whose mother allegedly died because of formaldehyde fumes in her FEMA trailer, told The Associated Press.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which is coordinating U.S. assistance in Haiti, has expressed no interest in sending the trailers to the earthquake-stricken country, the AP reported. FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens declined to comment on the idea.

Haitian Culture and Communications Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said she hadn't heard of the idea and added: "I don't think we would use them. I don't think we would accept them."

In a Jan. 15 letter to FEMA, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the trailers could be used as temporary shelter or emergency clinics.

"While I continue to believe that these units should not be used for human habitation, I do believe that they could be of some benefit on a short-term, limited basis if the appropriate safeguards are provided," he wrote.

For the recreational and travel trailer industry, which has lost thousands of jobs during the recession, the push to send the trailers to Haiti is motivated by more than charity. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed in the South against the largest trailer manufacturers - among them, Indiana-based Gulf Stream Coach - by people who lived in the trailers and say they have suffered illnesses as the result of toxic gases.

Bidding is under way in an online government-run auction to sell the trailers in large lots at bargain prices. The RV industry fears the sales will reduce demand for new products. Some of the bids so far work out to less than $500 for trailers that ordinarily sell for about $20,000 new.

Lobbyists for the industry, much of which is based in Indiana and includes major manufactures such as Gulf Stream, have been talking to members of Congress and disaster relief agencies to see if it would be possible to send the trailers to Haiti.

"This isn't really the best time for the RV Industry to have very low-priced trailers put out onto the market," the group's spokesman Kevin Broom told AP.

How much, if any, formaldehyde remains in the trailers is unknown. The auction site warns that the trailers may not have been tested for the chemical, and FEMA says buyers are required to sign an agreement not to use the auctioned trailers for housing. Broom maintains that most are "perfectly safe," and "the handful of trailers that might have a problem" can be removed.

Lindsay Huckabee, who lived in a FEMA trailer in Mississippi for two years with her husband and five children, blames a series of illnesses on the trailer.

"While some shelter is better than no shelter," she said, "sending FEMA trailers is a bad idea without tight controls and warnings."

"I think it's very self-serving to hand off a product that's not good for Americans and say, 'Hey, we're doing a good thing here,'" she said.

In Haiti, Ermite Bellande said she has had no shelter since losing her three-story house. Still, she doesn't want one of the trailers.

"We have nothing," she lamented. "But I would rather sleep outside than be in a metal box full of chemicals."

Joseph Pacious, who was hoping to find shelter at a tent city near the Port-au-Prince airport, disagreed. "The trailers may be hot, and they may make us sick," he said. "But look at how we are living already. How bad can it be?"

Myriam Bellevu, who is sleeping in a tent because she does not feel safe in her damaged home, said: "If the trailers are not good, the Americans must keep them for themselves. It's true that we are poor, but if they want to help, they must help in a good way."

Officials with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said Mississippi does not have authority on the matter because the trailers belong to FEMA.

Hewes told the Sun Herald that he spoke with officials from the Port of Gulfport who are planning to send supplies to Haiti. In case the trailers are released by FEMA, the officials have looked into transportation. One container company at the Port of Gulfport, Crowley, has facilities in Haiti, although Haiti's main port has been severely damaged.

Hewes said it might be possible to ship a few trailers in military cargo planes.

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