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The federal government is not immune from lawsuits claiming many Gulf Coast hurricane victims were exposed to potentially dangerous fumes while living in trailers it provided, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt cited evidence that the Federal Emergency Management Agency delayed investigating complaints about formaldehyde levels in its trailers because it might be held legally responsible. The preservative can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

Engelhardt said FEMA learned of the formaldehyde concerns around March 2006, several months after Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, but responded by "sticking their heads in the sand" rather than ordering air-quality tests.

"Indeed, the evidence shows that FEMA initially ignored the potential formaldehyde problem and neglected to conduct testing in fear that such testing would 'imply FEMA's ownership of the issue,'" the judge wrote in his 48-page ruling.


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