Environment & Health

Silencing the Scientist

A whistleblower at the federal Centers for Disease Control tried to sound the alarm about toxic formaldehyde in FEMA trailers – but faced retaliation instead.
Christopher De Rosa testifies at the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee, April 1, 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington. | Credit: LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE/AP

We begin with a warning that was never heard and it’s coming from one of the nation’s top scientists responsible for public health. Dr. Chris de Rosa, with the Centers for Disease Control, is speaking out for the first time tonight on television about his concerns for Hurricane Katrina victims along the gulf coast. For months, even years, these people have been living in camper trailers that were making them sick…campers provided by FEMA. Dr. de Rosa repeatedly urged his agency to tell the public about the long- term risk from the toxic chemical formaldehyde which is found in the trailers. Now we’ve reported extensively on this broadcast about the “toxic trailers”…tonight, you’ll hear what the residents needed to know but someone, somewhere in the federal government didn’t want them or you to hear.

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DAN RATHER: Chris de Rosa is a soft-spoken scientist, who has worked for more than three decades to protect people’s lives.

CHRIS DE ROSA, CDC SCIENTIST: While I’m not an activist, if you’re in the public health service, your role is to be an advocate for public health by translating science into public health service and policy.

As one of the head toxicologists for the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, he had a staff of nearly 70 people charged with analyzing toxic chemicals that are in the environment. So it was only natural that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, turned to de Rosa in the late spring of 2006 for guidance after hearing complaints that the trailers they were using to house displaced Katrina victims were making people sick.

DE ROSA: I got a call one evening asking me if I would be available to look at a document they had prepared based on some materials we had on our website addressing specific chemicals including formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde, used to make particle boards of building products, such as the walls and cabinets of the FEMA trailers, releases as a toxic gas. Some trailers have higher levels of this gas than others. After hearing trailer residents complain that the formaldehyde was making them sick, FEMA wanted input from the CDC about the health risks.

DE ROSA: Based on my review as far as it goes, they did a great job in capturing the short-term health effects. But it would be problematic if we didn’t address longer-term health effects, such as cancer.

RATHER: That was a pretty big “but” then.

DE ROSA: It was.

How dangerous is formaldehyde? Its tendency to cause respiratory problems is widely known. The World Health Organization and OSHA say that the chemical also causes cancer. Beyond that de Rosa says it can cause spontaneous abortions.

RATHER: And what was FEMA’s reaction when you said that they should include this, the long-term consequences?

DE ROSA: Well, my sense was they had the information in front of them, they needed to include the information, including the issue of cancer. I didn’t hear back from FEMA.

For families like the Huckabees who have been living in trailers with high levels of formaldehyde, the health effects are all too real.

LINDA HUCKABEE: We’re down to one nose bleed every two weeks, but for a while it was two or three a week.

Linda Huckabee, her husband Steve and their five children have been sick continuously since moving in after the storm. Their symptoms are consistent with exposure to formaldehyde.

HUCKABEE: Michael was born shortly after we moved into the trailer. Actually, within two weeks of us getting our first FEMA trailer. And he just turned two, he’s back and forth with sinus infections, ear infections. My children have missed a lot of school since we’ve gotten in the FEMA trailer. Last year – Laila was in kindergarten, and she missed 43 days, I believe.

LAILA HUCKABEE: I have nose bleeds a lot.

Then in February 2007, de Rosa saw the report on formaldehyde prepared by the CDC for FEMA. This was more than six months after he raised the long-term health consequences, but there aas still no mention of it.

DE ROSA: I began to look through it, and I realized that it had been restricted to the short-term health effects. And I felt this was potentially misleading and a threat to public health.

So he drafted a stern letter to FEMA for his CDC managers to review stating that there is no recognized safe level of exposure to formaldehyde and that failure to tell the public endangers their health. De Rosa didn’t hear back for over a week, but he says finally after some prodding, the CDC sent a letter to FEMA. But that wasn’t the end of the issue. FEMA was still insisting on identifying a safe level of formaldehyde.

DE ROSA: It was in very late May that we got another request from FEMA. But this request came in through our sister agency, the National Centers for Environmental Health, requesting some technical assistance and support in addressing FEMA’s request for the identification of safe quote, unquote safe levels of exposures of formaldehyde. And I received it on June 1, when I saw it I wrote to my colleagues and said we need to be very cautious in making a public health call on formaldehyde especially as it relates to defining, quote, unquote, safe levels because it is a matter of government policy, science policy that there is no safe level of exposure to formaldehyde.

De Rosa says that FEMA seemed to be shopping around for CDC scientists who would give them the answers they wanted to hear.

RATHER: What was going through your head? I mean you knew there were thousands of people, tens of thousands of people living in these trailers with there children, some cases many children. What were you thinking?

DE ROSA: The things that where going through my head, was that this was not some theoretical risk that we often talk about in environmental health and in science. More generally this is something that is tangible. Kids. The elderly are presenting clinically. Having seen children undergoing acute asthma attack and knowing that these kids are housed in those trailers. Their parents are watching this. They’re spending time in the emergency room. I felt that there was a need to act.

But FEMA and the CDC still did not act on de Rosa’s warning that exposure could be deadly. He believes that neither of these agencies lived up to their responsibilities.

DE ROSA: We took people at their most vulnerable point and we moved them to a disaster that was potentially worse, and they thought it was better.

RATHER: And that’s what you tried to get others to put out publicly.

DE ROSA: Yes.

CONGRESSMAN BART GORDON: The bottom line is that a year ago the CDC failed to serve the public health when they notified FEMA that the formaldehyde in their trailers wasn’t a heath risk.

Congressman Bart Gordon, Democrat from Tennessee, is the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology. He has taken a keen interest in the CDC’s handling of this matter.

GORDON: I think that it was a collapse of management. I think it was really a lack of serious concern at the top and it’s really a classic story of a 30-year public servant who saw there was a problem and wouldn’t let it go and kept going to his superiors, trying to get it changed to protect the public health which was his charge. They wouldn’t listen, didn’t want to listen.

RATHER: It’s hard for me to understand, I want to come back to the CDC, why the CDC would ignore what Dr. de Rosa had to say, again world renowned scientist, about the long-term health hazards from exposure to formaldehyde? And why once they agreed to address his concerns, they took so long to do so.

GORDON: Well that’s something that we want to know more about also. Again you could say it’s a management failure, well clearly that’s the case, whether or not it’s a situation of not wanting to rock the boat, whether someone from above said, “Don’t cause any embarrassment.” We don’t know yet. But we’re gonna have hearing and try to get to the bottom of it.

RATHER: Would you or would you not use the word “suppressed” when it comes to what you’ve repeatedly tried to get out about the FEMA trailers?

DE ROSA: If it was not suppressed, it was simply ignored. Maybe there’s not a difference there. But there was … I didn’t feel I had an audience that was hearing what I had to say.

In an e-mail response, the CDC says that since the earliest days of Hurricane Katrina, the agency has worked to in its words “provide accurate, accessible health information to residents of the gulf coast region about health threats.” At the same time as de Rosa was pressing on the health risk issue with the trailers … he was also pressing the CDC to release a five-year study warning that nine million people living around the Great Lakes were at risk for health problems. The CDC planned to release the report in July 2007, but at the last minute, cancelled the release saying it needed more review and that the research methods were flawed. The report, they say, will be released this spring.

DE ROSA: At the eleventh hour to have it simply blocked, to me was, difficult. But what became even beyond difficult was when there was such labored efforts to discredit the report, including sending it out to the same peer reviewers a second time with very directed instructions on how to identify the flaws in the report. But yet those same peer reviewers held the course. They stated clearly that the report should be released as written.

The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group, obtained a draft of the report and posted it on their website, along with comments from the peer reviewers, all criticizing CDC for withholding the study. Now Congress is investigating why CDC, after so many years, is still stalling the Great Lakes study release.

DE ROSA: At the core of public health service is a preeminent emphasis on prevention, and invoking the precautionary principle that it is better to prevent than cure.

RATHER: Is that or is that not what you were trying to do with the fema trailers?

DE ROSA: Yes.

RATHER: Is that or is it not what you were trying to do with the great lakes case?

DE ROSA: Yes.

A year and a half after de Rosa first brought up the long-term health risks of formaldehyde exposure in the FEMA trailers, the CDC finally included most of those risks in a revised report. A few weeks later, de Rosa was quote, reassigned unquote to another job. His new job was without a staff or any of his old responsibilities.

RATHER: What’s going on here?

DE ROSA: Well they’ve certainly done a good job of removing me from my position where I’d been for 18 years. I’m no longer interacting with my colleagues, many of whom I’ve worked with for many, many years. And I don’t have the opportunity to make connections with people outside the organization that I had. Haven’t had a phone number of record since October since I returned and I was moved. So that makes things very difficult for me.

GORDON: Of course, now he also has been demoted. But a reasonable person might look and see that just a year ago this person that was demoted got a $10,000 bonus plus his he got a 5 percent raise in contrast to the normal 2 and a half percent raise. So clearly he was doing a good job, they thought at the time, and was internationally respected within his toxicology field.

Congressman Gordon says he also wants to tell public servants … don’t be afraid to step forward.

GORDON: We also need to send a message and the message throughout all those public servants that are charged with protecting the public health that they shouldn’t be afraid to come forward and do their job. We need to get back that type of atmosphere where every person within the federal government feels empowered, you know to do there job and step forward and to try to help serve the public.

RATHER: Are they trying to get rid of you?

DE ROSA: They would have fewer problems, if I weren’t here. I think that uh, my sense is that there may also be an element of sending a message more broadly. That given the fact that I had a fairly strong track record over 27 years as a federal employee and prior to that for ten years in academia. That, uh, the message is, if they can do that to me, what will they do to others?

This segment was produced by Sheila Kaplan, whose reporting was supported by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

About the reporter

Sheila Kaplan

Sheila Kaplan

Sheila Kaplan is a senior writer for STAT, Boston Globe's health venture, covering the intersection of science, money, and politics.

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