Legal Ethics

FEMA Lawyers Criticized

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Lawyers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency are facing scrutiny for opposing testing for dangerous levels of formaldehyde in trailers housing hurricane victims.

Legal ethics experts told the San Francisco Chronicle that, if reports are true, lawyers may have violated ethics rules and could face civil liability.

Formaldehyde is a preservative that can cause respiratory problems and possibly cancer in high doses. Nearly 86,000 families in the trailers have reported health problems, CBS News reports.

FEMA stopped testing for formaldehyde in 2006 after it found levels 75 times higher than the recommended maximum, the Chronicle says.

One e-mail from a FEMA staffer, released by a House committee, said FEMA’s general counsel “has advised that we not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue.” Another attorney warned that officials should get his approval before testing because “once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

Monroe Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York, told the Chronicle that the lawyers should have realized that FEMA risked liability if it failed to investigate known health hazards. If the allegations are true, he said, the lawyers should be “disbarred for incompetence” and “should also be held liable civilly for complicity in whatever harm was suffered by the residents.”

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