For the first time since Hurricane Katrina left tens of thousands of families living in FEMA trailers, a federal jury heard allegations Monday (Sept. 14) in New Orleans that the government-issued shelters exposed Gulf Coast storm victims to hazardous formaldehyde fumes.

A New Orleans woman suing trailer maker Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc. claims her son’s asthma was aggravated by elevated levels of formaldehyde in their trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the Associated Press.

Gulf Stream’s own tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in its trailers in early 2006, but the company failed to warn plaintiffs Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper, about the risks, said plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee.

“What you don’t know can hurt you, and this case proves that 100 times over,” Buzbee said in his opening statements Monday.

Buzbee and company lawyers urged jurors to consider different standards for what could be safe levels of formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in construction materials that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

Buzbee said Alexander and Cooper were exposed to formaldehyde levels that were multiple times higher than those determined to be safe by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Gulf Stream attorney Andrew Weinstock said formaldehyde levels in the plaintiffs’ trailer were many times 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.

The federal government isn’t a defendant in this first “bellwether” trial, although it has been sued in hundreds of other cases over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled last month that a two-year statute of limitations bars Cooper’s claims against the government. Plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to appeal that ruling.

Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. FEMA downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008.

“I believe this will be the most important case that will be tried in Louisiana this year,” Buzbee said.

Jurors heard videotaped testimony from former ATSDR official Christopher De Rosa, who was one of the government’s top toxicologists. In an e-mail to his superiors, De Rosa had warned of signs that formaldehyde in trailers threatened to become a “public health catastrophe.”

During his taped testimony earlier this year, De Rosa choked up when he recalled worrying that children were suffering because government scientists weren’t reacting quickly enough to formaldehyde concerns.

“And how people could stand by and do the politically expedient thing is beyond me,” he said.

Alexander and Cooper, now 12 years old, moved into the trailer in May 2006 after Katrina damaged their home in eastern New Orleans. They lived in the unit for 19 months, moving out shortly after Alexander learned of formaldehyde concerns.

Erika Alexander, Cooper’s 15-year-old sister, testified that her eyes and nose burned and she started getting nosebleeds when they moved into the trailer. She said her mother “didn’t know what was the smell or what was going on.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers accuse Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream and other trailer makers of using shoddy building materials and methods in a rush to meet FEMA’s unprecedented demand for temporary housing after the 2005 hurricanes.

But the trailer occupied by Alexander and Cooper was produced in 2004.

Weinstock said FEMA has been purchasing trailers from Gulf Stream since 1992 and didn’t document a formaldehyde complaint about one of its units until 2006.

“FEMA knew more about what was going on than Gulf Stream,” Weinstock said.

Weinstock, who said Cooper’s asthma was first diagnosed when he was 3, denied that the boy’s condition worsened after he moved into the trailer. Alexander took her son off a steroid treatment for asthma during a two-year period before Katrina, he added.

Weinstock also said Alexander didn’t mention her formaldehyde concerns to one of Cooper’s doctors until April 2009, after they had been picked to be the first trial’s plaintiffs.

Fluor Enterprises had a contract to install FEMA trailers. Charles Penot, a lawyer for Fluor, said the company hired expert subcontractors to haul and install the units.

“That’s what FEMA hired us to do. That’s what Fluor did,” he said.