Toxic Trailers and Smallpox Blankets
Lakota Spiritual Leader, David Swallow, Speaks Out on Dangerous Conditions
by David Swallow, Lakota Spiritual Leader and a Headman of the Lakota Nation
Edited by Stephanie M. Schwartz


Deja Vue, Indeed: The Evolving Story of FEMA’s Toxic Trailers
by Stephanie M. Schwartz, Freelance Writer - Member, Native American Journalists Association (NAJA)

Toxic Trailers and Smallpox Blankets
by David Swallow, Lakota Spiritual Leader and a Headman of the Lakota Nation
Edited by Stephanie M. Schwartz
© July 16, 2007  Porcupine, South Dakota

My name is David Swallow.  I live near the community of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  I want to speak today.  I want to speak out against ethnic cleansing, genocide, and extermination in these modern days.

Today, due to the terrible economic situation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, everyone knows that many poor people need housing.  Horrible poverty is everywhere here.  Reports say unemployment on Pine Ridge is around 85% or worse.

Many of my people are sick.  I am told that the life expectancy here on Pine Ridge is between 48-52 years old.  By this, I am one who has already lived past when they thought I would die.

There are some people who live good lives.  BIA workers and Federal and State Government workers don’t live on the Reservation.  They have jobs and live in nice housing in towns in Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Others live good lives, too.  Tribal Council members have jobs so they can afford decent housing.  They live good.

But all these people are working together to bring toxic, contaminated FEMA trailers left over from Hurricane Katrina to the poorest people of Pine Ridge.  They will be creating an ethnic cleansing like in the 1800s when the Government sent blankets to the reservations which had smallpox infection in them.

This new trailer housing creates disease.  That is why the Government gives them away to Indians.  The Government wants the oil, uranium, and rich minerals that might be on our land but the Indians are in the way of this.

That is the same reason the BIA and the Tribal Council started up the Land Consolidation Act of 2000, to buy up all the Reservation land.  With no jobs, little food, and much homelessness, they put us in a position where we have to sell our land.

Now they’re trying to bring in trailer houses infested with toxic chemicals.  These chemicals get into the air and make people very sick, especially the children, elders, mothers, and people already with health problems.  The contamination causes cancer, heart diseases, lung diseases, rashes, mental problems, breathing problems, many horrible things.

If these trailers are such good housing, why doesn’t the mainstream people want to buy them?  Why did their own inspectors warn them about the danger from the high levels of the chemicals?  Why are the people already living in them suing the trailer makers and FEMA because of getting sick from the toxic poisons?  Why will no one listen when many major mainstream news reports have talked about these FEMA trailers being toxic?

Every time we deal with the Government, they give us a deal like this.  This is no good way.

I want to say, we are not “Indians.”  We are Lakota.  And we Traditional Lakota carry the Red Nation C’anunpa [Sacred Pipe] in Truth.  Who walked this land first?  The Red Man did.  And he should be dealt with in a good way.

We need jobs, not charity.  We don’t need contaminated hand-outs.  We need lots and lots of jobs.  We need good economic-development projects and programs on the Reservation.  If we had jobs, we could build our own homes.  With jobs, we would be able to solve many of our problems.

If anyone really cares about conditions on the Reservation, they should look to these things.  They should not try to kill us with poisoned homes.

So this is what I have to say today.  Ho h’ecetu yelo, I have spoken.

David Swallow, Wowitan Yuha Mani
Porcupine, South Dakota – The Pine Ridge Reservation
Deja vue, Indeed: The Evolving Story of FEMA’s Toxic Trailers
by Stephanie M. Schwartz, Freelance Writer - Member, Native American Journalists Association (NAJA)

© July 16, 2007  Firestone, Colorado  Stephanie M. Schwartz

In June of 2007, Senator Tim Johnson, FEMA, Congress, and the BIA arranged for 2,000 FEMA trailers to be made available to the Native American reservations in dire need of housing.  These trailers are part of the 8,000+ excess, unused FEMA trailers constructed for the victims of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Exactly which American Indian reservations and how many units each reservation will get remains yet to be decided.

The tribes will be required to pay transportation costs as well as the costs to prepare the lots, set the trailers up, and to winterize them.  However, clearly this appeared to be a significant help towards the critical need of about 90,000 American Indian families in need of adequate housing (as detailed in a 2003 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights).

According to public statements, Senator Johnson specifically envisioned many of these trailers going to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a place whose poverty-stricken conditions are likened to third world countries.  The Senator and the BIA have been working closely with John Steele, Paul Iron Cloud, and the Tribal Council from Pine Ridge to make it all happen.

It seemed a surprisingly ideal solution, one which many people applauded at first as a huge humanitarian and logical move by the Federal Government.  Ideal, that is, until one starts to investigate the history of these mobile homes and learns of an astonishing toxicity issue with the vast majority of the units.

Said to be fully-furnished, three bedroom units, these trailers were built during a construction frenzy created by FEMA's unprepared but immediate need to house Hurricane Katrina survivors.  A report from the Sun Herald News in Mississippi in May of 2006 details the picture of this manufacturing frenzy.... untrained workers, a dearth of suitable materials, using materials possibly made outside the U.S. which contained higher levels of chemicals than normally allowed, and low quality control on hastily-created assembly lines.

Chemicals… therein lies the problem.  The Government's public announcements about these trailers fail to mention the history of toxic contamination from formaldehyde which has been proven to exist in the FEMA trailers and mobile homes constructed for the victims of Katrina.

Formaldehyde is a chemical which emits gasses which the EPA considers to be highly toxic and carcinogenic (known to cause lung, nose, and throat cancer) but which is not regulated for trailer manufacturing in this country.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, exposure to formaldehyde toxins can create irritated eyes, breathing problems, headaches, asthma attacks, coughing, congestive heart disease, nausea, depression, memory-impairment, skin rashes, respiratory problems and even can lead to cancer.  To compound the problem, high temperatures or high humidity increase the toxin levels.

Worse, for people who already are compromised with respiratory health issues, and for infants, children, nursing mothers, and elders, exposure can prove disastrous and even more deadly.

Formaldehyde is used in cheap building materials like particle board, plywood, curtains, molded plastics, counter tops, glue, carpet, insulation, and wallpaper.  While normal trailers and mobile homes also contain these toxins, the FEMA trailers and mobile homes, hurriedly built as bare-bones cheap models, seem to contain significantly higher concentrations.

In 2006, the Sierra Club tested FEMA trailers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and found 83-94% of them to contain formaldehyde levels far above EPA and OSHA recommended workplace limits of 0.10 parts per million.  Other testing has shown comparable results.  Varying reports state that the gas levels emitted by the formaldehyde in the contaminated trailers ranged from 3 to 1,000 times the acceptable EPA limits.

Originally, FEMA's response to hundreds of complaints from Katrina victims was that the toxic vapors go away with adequate ventilation after about six months.  However, continued testing has proven that not to be the case.

Additionally, according to a report given by journalist Dan Rather on HD-TV, information has come to light that FEMA was informed of the high toxicity by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) just two months after Katrina hit, in October 2005, but did nothing.  Testing to ensure employee safety, OSHA found new units in four county FEMA staging areas to have toxicity levels 20 times above government standards just in the air outside the trailers.

Dan Rather further related his interview with a former FEMA employee who clearly indicated that not only was FEMA aware of the toxic problems but chose to ignore them.  Moreover, the employee stated that FEMA advised their employees to remain silent about the test results.

In March of 2007, the Washington Post News reported FEMA's woes in trying to sell their excess trailers and mobile homes.  Selling the units at 40 cents on the dollar seemed like simple poor financial management on the part of FEMA in this report.

However, in light of the contamination issues, it may have turned out to be the best financial move FEMA could have made.

In May, 2007, both ABC News and CBS News reported that Louisiana Dem. Senator Mary Landrieu and Louisiana Rep. Congressman Bobby Jindal have each independently called for hearings to address the FEMA trailer toxicity issues and FEMA's poor response as well as to what it knew, how much it knew, and when.

In June, 2007, the Louisiana Advocate News reported that a class-action lawsuit had been filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Federal Court which claims that "hundreds of thousands" of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama may have been exposed to dangerously high concentrations of carcinogenic formaldehyde fumes with no recourse or viable solution provided by FEMA.

According to a report in the Washington Post on July 13, 2007, Desiree Collins of Louisiana filed the original lawsuit regarding the contamination of the FEMA trailers.  She allowed her lawsuit to become a class-action lawsuit for all Katrina survivors who are victims of the toxic exposure.  On July 2, 2007, the 47 year old wife and mother died of lung cancer which was diagnosed only a week before she died.  Her husband and children will continue the court case.

Obviously, it seems tragic enough that well over 75-85,000 families, victims of Hurricane Katrina, still have to remain trapped into living in their FEMA units two years after the fact, a home most likely contaminated and dangerous.  That, in itself, defies anyone's definition of humanitarian aid.

Yet since June of 2007, with South Dakota Dem. Senator Tim Johnson leading Congress into approval, tribal councils are working hand in hand with the Federal BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to bring 2,000 of these very same trailers to the reservations of South Dakota as well as to other reservations.  Again, all under the guise of humanitarian aid.

Deja vue, indeed.  We have been here before.  The seeming-correlation of the distribution of toxic trailers to the reservations in 2007 and the government dispersing smallpox-infested blankets to the reservations in the 1800s is not so far-fetched at all.  It just leaves one wondering.
For More Information:

Website: Toxic Trailers
Informational Website Resource Dedicated to Katrina Victims Forced to Live in Contaminated Trailers

U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services: ATSDR, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry:
Medical Management guidelines for Formaldehyde (HCHO)

Dan Rather Reports: 2007 Episode 216: Toxic Trailers

ABC News: Congressman Wants FEMA Trailers Hearings

CBS News: Congress Acts on FEMA Trailer Probe

KRISTV: Corpus Christi, Texas:  FEMA Trailer Plaintiff Dies of Lung Cancer

KXMB News:  Bismarck/Mandan, North Dakota: FEMA Trailers Headed to Reservations

Native American Times: Tulsa, Oklahoma: FEMA’s Potentially Toxic Trailers Headed for Indian Reservations
Rapid City Journal: Rapid City, South Dakota: Unused FEMA Trailers Headed to Reservations Nationwide

Sierra Club: Mardi Gras Celebrations Overshadowed by Toxic Trailers

Sierra Club: Delta Louisiana Chapter:
Testing by Sierra Club Shows Abnormal Levels of Formaldehyde in FEMA Trailers

Sierra Club: Mississippi Chapter: Fact Sheet: Toxic Trailers?

The Advocate and WBRZ News: Baton Rouge, Louisiana: New Orleans Woman Suing Mobile Home Vendor

The Anniston Star: Anniston, Alabama: The Alabama Legacy of Hurricane Katrina

The Sun Herald: Gulfport, Mississippi: Toxic Trailers

Washington Post: Washington D.C.: FEMA Taking Hit on Sale of Surplus Trailers - Archives March 8, 2007

Washington Post:  Washington D.C.:  FEMA Trailer Plaintiff Dies of Cancer
Stephanie M. Schwartz can be reached at
To view this and other Schwartz articles, visit

This article may be reprinted, reproduced, and/or re-distributed
unedited with proper attribution and sourcing
for non-profit, educational, news, or archival purposes.

Note:  This article was originally published on July 16, 2007 at this website.

It was subsequently re-published by various media including:

Native Village News
Two Hearts Organization
Four Suns News of Zurich, Switzerland
Cosmic Fire Foundation of the Netherlands (English Forum – News from the Reservations) Forum
Margot B World News, March 1-7, 2008 Edition

and numerous internet forums, newslists, and bulletin boards