House subcommittee hearing April 1 on FEMA toxic trailers and mistreatment of CDC whistleblower


Tomorrow (April 1) the House Science Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee will hold a hearing (“Toxic Trailers: Have the Centers for Disease Control Failed to Protect Public Health?”) to further investigate the belated discovery of high levels of formaldehyde in trailers that FEMA provided to displaced Katrina victims. The hearing (also webcast) will feature testimony by Dr. Christopher De Rosa, former toxicology director at the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, testifying after being unfairly demoted and placed on a termination track for fighting to tell the truth about formaldehyde’s toxicity.  We applaud DeRosa’s public service, including his decision to be a whistleblower. 

See here for the April 1 hearing documents and archived webcast.

See our March 26 post: “FEMA’s toxic-trailer ineptitude in housing Katrina victims raises concern about climate preparedness”

For more on Dr. De Rosa, see here, here, and here

The hearing, “Toxic Trailers: Have the Centers for Disease Control Failed to Protect Public Health?” will be held at 9:30 am, April 1, in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. It also will be webcast on the Committee’s Web site.

List of Witnesses:

Dr. Heidi Sinclair, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Louisiana State University, Medical Director, Baton Rouge Children’s Health Program

Ms. Becky Gillette, Formaldehyde Campaign Director, Sierra Club Gulf Coast Environmental Restoration Task Force

Mrs. Lindsay Huckabee, Resident of FEMA-provided mobile home in Kiln, Mississippi from October 2005-to-present, along with her husband and five children.

Dr. Christopher De Rosa, Former Director, Division of Toxicology and Environment Medicine, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

Dr. Meryl Karol, Professor Emerita, University of Pittsburgh  

Mr. Patrick Preston, Former Trial Attorney, Office of Chief Counsel, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Dr. Howard Frumkin, Director, National Center for Environmental Health, ATSDR

Dr. Tom Sinks, Deputy Director, National Center for Environmental Health, ATSDR

Vice Admiral (ret.) Harvey E. Johnson, Jr., Deputy Administrator, FEMA

Full text of the Subcommittee’s Hearing Charter

From the Hearing Charter:


The mission of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “is to serve the public by using the best science, taking responsive public health actions, and providing trusted health information to prevent harmful exposures and disease related to toxic substances.” Unfortunately, the agency failed to meet any of those objectives when it produced a Health Consultation on Formaldehyde Sampling of FEMA Temporary-Housing Trailers in February 2007. 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. The agency’s handling of this issue and their inability to quickly and effectively correct it was the direct result of a collapse of senior management and leadership at the very top of the agency. The agency failed to translate scientific findings and facts into appropriate public health actions which would have resulted in properly informing and warning tens of thousands of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita survivors living in FEMA-provided trailers and mobile homes of the potential health risks they faced. The agency should have pushed to remove them from this circumstance as early as possible. Instead, they did virtually nothing.

The Health Consultation, which was conducted at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Office of General Counsel was scientifically flawed and omitted critical health information. The report provided an illusion of safety that was used to drive FEMA policy of maintaining tens of thousands of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita families in FEMA-provided travel trailers. Rather than clearly warning occupants of the full-extent of potential health effects they could be exposed to the report determined that opening windows and vents would reduce the concentrations of formaldehyde in the trailers below levels of health concern.

Opening windows and vents did substantially reduce the level of formaldehyde in the trailers, but the Health Consultation inappropriately relied on a “level of concern”
regarding the health risks of formaldehyde of 0.3 parts per million (ppm), ten times higher than ATSDR’s own Minimal Risk Level of up to one year of exposure (0.03 ppm) and three times higher than the level of exposure widely accepted by other federal agencies to cause health effects (0.1 ppm). It also neglected to mention the potential long-term effects of exposure to formaldehyde and possible cancer risks.


The Subcommittee hearing will review how and why the nation’s public health agency failed to protect the public’s health. The hearing will examine the direct involvement of the Director and Deputy Director of ATSDR in reviewing, vetting and approving the release of the agency’s February 2007 Health Consultation on formaldehyde which was scientifically unsound and quickly dismissed by the agency’s chief toxicologist after it had been forwarded to FEMA. Dr. Christopher De Rosa, ATSDR’s chief toxicologist and then-Director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, immediately drafted a swift, sharp letter to FEMA pointing out many of the scientific faults with the report and said to release it as it was would be “perhaps misleading.” The Director of ATSDR finally had the letter sent to Mr. Rick Preston from FEMA’s Office of General Counsel, who had requested the report in the first place, from a separate ATSDR office on March 17, 2007. Amazingly, Mr. Preston acknowledged in interviews with Subcommittee staff that he simply placed the letter in a file drawer and never shared it with anyone else.

Without knowledge of the March letter, the February Health Consultation by itself led senior FEMA officials to believe that concentrations of formaldehyde in FEMA-provided temporary housing units did not present a public health hazard. That interpretation of ATSDR’s Health Consultation and the astonishingly lackluster effort by ATSDR officials to correct public mis-statements by FEMA officials or to immediately revise their own flawed report in the Spring of 2007 led FEMA to maintain the status quo and keep tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors living in potentially formaldehyde-laden toxic trailers for at least one year longer than necessary or warranted.

Apart from the March 17 letter ATSDR had no response at all. If they had, perhaps more than 30,000 families would not remain in these temporary housing units today.

Among the key questions:
o Why did the leadership of ATSDR take such halfhearted actions after the flawed report was issued and after they were informed – and agreed – that the report was fundamentally flawed and would be misleading if it was released?

o Why did top officials of ATSDR fail to either publicly or privately correct mis-statements by the FEMA Administrator that formaldehyde in the trailers did not pose a threat to the inhabitants?

o The preparation and dissemination of the February Health Consultation to FEMA was managed by the Office of the Director. The Director of ATSDR, Dr. Howard Frumkin, reviewed and commented on the report and his Deputy, Dr. Tom Sinks, reviewed, edited and approved the release of the report. Given their intimate involvement in the preparation of this report, why did Drs. Frumkin and Sinks both take concerted actions in the fall of 2007 to publicly scold the two authors of the report, reprimand their branch chief who was unaware of the report and demote and retaliate against Dr. Chris De Rosa, the agency’s chief toxicologist, who appeared to be the one individual who repeatedly pushed the agency to do more and be more assertive in its response to the formaldehyde issue?

o How can the public and Congress trust an agency to protect the public’s health that treated one of the most important public health issues of the agency’s recent past so wantonly, with so little urgency, insight, sound scientific advise or concern?

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