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Scientists Ignored on Toxic Trailers

Senior management at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the toxins arm of the CDC, got slammed today at a congressional hearing examining the agency’s response when the government trailers housing Hurricane Katrina victims were found to be toxic.

The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight today held hearings into how and why the agency failed to protect public health when those trailers were found to be emitting dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

"In almost every respect ATSDR failed to fulfill its mission to protect the public from exposure to formaldehyde at levels known to cause ill-health effects," said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC), who blamed a "collapse of senior management and leadership."

At the hearing, it became clear that a leading government expert on formaldehyde had tried to alert his superiors about the toxicity levels of the government trailers in New Orleans, but was repeatedly ignored. Ultimately, he was demoted. Today his superiors said they should have followed his advice, but they did not address why they "reassigned" him to a new position.

Dr. Christopher De Rosa, former director of toxicology and environmental medicine at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said today that his superiors ignored his concerns about formaldehyde levels, kept him out of correspondence regarding its public health consultation and told him to stop writing them emails expressing his concerns about that consultation.

De Rosa, who has worked for the federal government for 28 years, said he learned that his division, which handles toxicology, was kept out of the loop of the agency’s work on the trailer issue.. He said today that information regarding the agency’s public health consultation was not shared with his division. This was unusual, he explained, because health consultations involving toxicology studies require review from De Rosa’s division.

ATSDR Director Dr. Howard Frumkin admitted that the health report did not make its way to De Rosa’s division, but said this was because the agency was trying to deliver an expedited emergency response. Frumkin said the division of toxicology was left out of correspondence because the agency needed to act quickly. "In retrospect, clearance in the division [of toxicology] did not occur," Frumkin said. "[S]taff went through the emergency response chain, so only that chain was used." The health consultation went directly from the "emergency chain" to Frumkin’s office.

De Rosa maintains that he was kept out of the loop on purpose. When he finally did review the consultation, he immediately contacted Frumkin’s office with his concerns. In his emails, De Rosa said the consultation failed to assess the long-term effects of formaldehyde, including the potential for cancer. "Despite my repeated efforts to bring these issues to the attention of my management," said De Rosa, "we had very little constructive follow-up."

De Rosa wasn’t the only one who talked about ATSDR’s shortcomings. Dr. Meryl Kerol of the University of Pittsburgh also testified today. Kerol, an expert in toxicology, said the report seemed insufficient in its coverage of formaldehyde’s long-term health effects, reproductive effects and carcinogenic effects.

The Sierra Club’s Becky Gillette went a step further. She testified at the hearing that the "health consultation was a huge disappointment." "[ATSDR] gave completely erroneous advice, covering up this problem when the health of thousands was at stake," said Gillette. She said the agency downplayed formaldehyde levels, which were higher than safe levels according to the agency’s own standards.

Gillette added that this wasn’t a surprise, though. "Contaminated communities often feel let down by ATSDR," she said.

Frumkin, the agency’s director, acknowledged at the hearing that the initial public health consultation was "narrowly focused [and had] an inappropriate level of concern." He also said that the revised report took longer to complete than it should have.

In October 2007, agency scientist De Rosa was demoted. This was a year after he had received a performance-based raise and a bonus.

Frumkin assured the committee that neither he nor the agency had any intention of firing De Rosa. But De Rosa said he has been physically moved around three times, making it difficult for him to interact with other scientists.

At today’s hearing, Miller praised what he described as De Rosa’s whistle-blowing. "It is not second nature for many managers to value whistle-blowers," Miller said, "but the loyalty we expect is the loyalty of the mission of the agency, the loyalty to protect public health."

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