Report on ATSDR health warning failure on FEMA trailers and whistleblower retaliation

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According to a damning House Science & Technology Committee investigative staff report, the leadership of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) is responsible for a systematic failure to provide public health protection in connection with assessing the risk of toxic formalehyde in trailers provided by FEMA to house Hurricane Katrina vicitms, and for retaliation against agency whistleblower Christopher De Rosa for raising issues that pointed essentially to how ATSDR was colluding with FEMA to present a misleading assessment to play down health risks.   

[Post revised March 2, 2009]

Background:
See our March 26, 2008 post:

FEMA’s toxic-trailer ineptitude in housing Katrina victims raises concern about climate preparedness

…The Federal Energy Management Agency (FEMA) is facing accusations of negligence, dishonesty, and unaccountability in its task of providing safe, alternate housing for displaced victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and is the target of Congressional investigations and a class action lawsuit for dispatching formaldehyde-laden toxic trailers…..

[House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry] Waxman’s investigation also discovered that that the chief of toxicology for the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Christopher T. DeRosa, had been pressured by FEMA to release information only on the short-term health effects of formaldehyde and to report a safe level of exposure, but refused to do so, citing evidence that the chemical is a probable carcinogen and that the long-term health effects represented crucial information.  He also pointed out that the presence of formaldehyde could mark the presence of other toxic chemicals as well, such as toluene or other solvents known or suspected to cause cancer.  After discovering that other ATSDR staff had supplied partial and misleading information to FEMA behind his back, he cried foul….

The House Science Committee voiced its strong disapproval in a January 29, 2008 letter to Howard Frumkin, signed by Reps. Brad Miller, chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, and Nick Lampson, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.  The letter accuses:  “You appear to have been complicit in giving FEMA precisely what they wanted … However what FEMA wanted and what you approved giving them was not the whole truth regarding formaldehyde. It was not based on best science, nor did it provide trusted health information to the Katrina survivors…”

New House Science and Technology Committee Majority Staff Report:
Press Release 

October 6, 2008

Subcommittee Report Finds CDC Has Failed to Protect the Public Health

(Washington, D.C.) Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight released a staff report that details the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registrys (ATSDR) handling of its response to high levels of formaldehyde in travel trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Based upon Subcommittee staff interviews with agency officials and ATSDR’s own internal documentation, the majority report offers a comprehensive account of ATSDR’s mishandling of this public health crisis.

The report finds that: The agency’s incomplete and inadequate handling of their public health assessment, the failure to quickly and effectively correct their scientific mistakes and their reluctance to take appropriate corrective actions was all marked by notable inattention and inaction on the part of ATSDR’s senior leadership.  As a result, tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina and Rita families living in trailers with elevated levels of formaldehyde were kept in harm’s way for at least one year longer than necessary. 

The ATSDR’s mission, as stated on their website, 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.  ATSDR is a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Top officials at ATSDR have denied involvement despite evidence to the contrary.  In interviews with Subcommittee staff and during testimony before the Subcommittee at the April 1 hearing [“Toxic Trailers: Have the Centers for Disease Control Failed to Protect Public Health?”], Dr. Howard Frumkin, the Director of ATSDR, said he did not really focus on the formaldehyde issue until July 2007, when a congressional hearing drew his attention to it.  Yet, documentation provided to the Subcommittee after the Subcommittees April 1 hearing reveals that Dr. Frumkin had at least 13 separate meetings on the formaldehyde issue between January 2007 and July 2007.

In February 2007, ATSDR produced a health consultation for FEMA on formaldehyde levels in 96 new unoccupied travel trailers provided by FEMA to survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  The report was marred by scientific flaws and omissions, according to the Subcommittee Staff Report.  Many of these issues were first flagged by Dr. Christopher De Rosa, then the Director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, when he first saw the report three weeks after it had been sent to FEMA. 

Although the report was prepared by De Rosa’s staff, he was unaware of the report because his staff was asked by FEMA to keep the report confidential and his staff was tasked directly by the Office of the Director of ATSDR on the formaldehyde issue.  Dr. Frumkin and his deputy, Dr. Tom Sinks, have consistently maintained that their involvement in the formaldehyde health consultation was extremely limited, although they were only two of five ATSDR employees who ever saw the report before it was released to FEMA.

The Subcommittee staff report provides details on how Drs. Frumkin and Sinks took concerted efforts to mask or ignore their own involvement in the formaldehyde study and instead attempted to push the blame for their fumbling of this critical public health document down the line to others, particularly Dr. De Rosa and his staff.  Dr. Frumkin removed Dr. De Rosa from his position as Director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine in October 2007.  Dr. De Rosa had successfully held that position for 16 years and the Subcommittee believes his removal was in retaliation for his persistent attempts to push the agencys leadership to take more substantive actions to protect the publics health from potential environmental hazards.

In numerous instances both Dr. Frumkin and Dr. Sinks claimed that De Rosa’s staff took it upon themselves to engage in the formaldehyde work for FEMA.  In fact, Dr. Sinks personally authorized the agency’s involvement in this work, and he acknowledged to Subcommittee staff during interviews that he had directly stated to agency staff that ATSDR should be engaged with FEMA on this issue.  Drs. Frumkin and Sinks used this false assertion about De Rosa, just one of many, to help justify their unsatisfactory performance evaluation of Dr. De Rosa in a memo to a senior CDC official in Oct. 2007. 

Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Brad Miller said: “Howard Frumkin and Tom Sinks were every federal employees nightmare of a boss. Their failures left thousands of people exposed to toxic levels of formaldehyde, and then they tried to push the blame down the ladder. Federal employees deserve better than that, and so does the public.”

#  #  #

From the House Science staff report [emphasis added]:

pp.7-8:
The Subcommittee began investigating ATSDR’s production of its formaldehyde health consultation for FEMA in the fall of 2007, when Dr. Christopher De Rosa, the agency’s former director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine (DTEM), brought several concerns to the attention of the Subcommittee. Dr. De Rosa was the first to flag significant scientific errors in the ATSDR report of February 2007, and he repeatedly pushed the agency to be more responsive and take more aggressive action to address the formaldehyde issue. For his efforts, Dr. De Rosa received an “unsatisfactory” performance assessment last October and was removed from his position as director of the division of toxicology. The Subcommittee believes Dr. De Rosa is a whistleblower and was removed from his position, which he had held for 16 years, in retaliation for his persistent attempts to push the agency’s leadership to take more substantive actions to protect the public’s health from potential environmental hazards.

Among our findings:

1.    The director of ATSDR, Dr. Howard Frumkin and his deputy, Dr. Tom Sinks, were both closely involved in the review, approval and release of the flawed February 2007 formaldehyde health consultation which contained significant scientific flaws and omitted critical public health warnings. Nevertheless, neither of them raised any concerns about its content before it was released.

2.    Once Dr. De Rosa drew their attention to the many scientific flaws and omissions in the document, their response was remarkably muted. At Dr. De Rosa’s urging, ATSDR informed FEMA of the flaws in the report, but the agency’s leadership did nothing to correct the public misstatements by FEMA about the report.

3.    In the wake of national news stories documenting respiratory and related symptoms of actual health effects from potential exposure to high levels of formaldehyde among FEMA-trailer residents, particularly among children, as well as congressional concerns about this issue, ATSDR failed to even inform trailer residents of the potential health effects they faced from exposure to formaldehyde.

4.    Dr. Frumkin testified during the Subcommittee’s April 1, 2008 hearing that his agency “should have engaged [the formaldehyde issue] during that first half of ‘07 more actively than we did.” Yet, documents provided to the Subcommittee after that hearing show that the FEMA/formaldehyde issue was on the agenda of Dr. Frumkin’s weekly senior staff meetings at least 13 times between January 2007 and July 19, 2007. Despite that, the agency took virtually no action to address it.

5. Both ATSDR and the CDC repeatedly released information in 2007 and in early 2008 that failed to include the very same health information that Dr. De Rosa had warned would be “possibly misleading” and “a threat to public health” if it was omitted.

6.      The leadership of ATSDR obfuscated their role in reviewing and approving the February 2007 health consultation and attempted to abdicate their own responsibility for the agency’s fundamental failure to protect the public’s health.

7.      Most disturbingly, as the agency’s troubled response to the formaldehyde fiasco unraveled, the leadership of ATSDR attempted to shift blame for the inappropriate handling of the incident to others, primarily Dr. De Rosa and his staff.

The agency’s continuing lackluster response to critical issues that impact the scientific integrity of the public health documents they release has also called into question the ability of the agency’s leadership to lead and direct an agency that is tasked with protecting the public’s health. 

pp.43-44:
Based on ATSDR’s recent performance it is difficult to see how the public or Congress can have any confidence in the agency to successfully fulfill its mission “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.” The agency’s leadership has failed the public, they have failed Congress and they have failed, most of all, their own dedicated employees. Spending their time and energy on finding others to blame for their own failures is not the sort of leadership the agency needs or the public deserves. Yet, that is exactly what they have done. It seems unlikely that ATSDR will be capable of fulfilling its core mission of protecting the public health until they have capable leaders willing and able to lead the agency and serve the public.

Coverage in the Los Angeles Times—“Fuming over formaldehyde,” October 7, 2008

And finally, this state-of-denial October 5 CDC Media Advisory in response to the Science Committee report—
“House Subcommittee issues staff report on 2007 CDC/ATSDR health assessments of indoor formaldehyde levels in unoccupied FEMA-provided travel trailers—Report Summarizes April 1, 2008 hearing, Provides Support for CDC/ATSDR Steps and Corrective Actions”

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