CDC Officials Blocked Public Health Report

The Center for Public Integrity, a public interest investigative journalism organization, has obtained copies of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of environmental and health data in eight Great Lakes states that was scheduled for publication in July 2007. The report, which pointed to elevated rates of lung, colon, and breast cancer; low birth weight; and infant mortality in several of the geographical areas of concern has not yet been made public.

A few days before the report was slated to be released, it was pulled. Meanwhile, at precisely the same time, its lead author, Christopher De Rosa, has been removed from the position he held since 1992.  The Center for Public Integrity is asking why.

The study, “Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern” was developed by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent U.S-Canadian organization that monitors and advises both governments on the use and quality of boundary waters.

The CDC report brings together two sets of data: environmental data on known “areas of concern” — including superfund sites and hazardous waste dumps — and separate health data collected by county or, in some cases, smaller geographical regions.

The study does not try to prove cause and effect. Instead, it outlines areas for further study and data collection on the link between pollution and health.

“Let’s say we have a superfund site and we also find elevated risk of leukemia in the county — is that related? We don’t know, but people living in the area can logically argue that we ought to find out,” Dr. Peter Orris, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and one of the peer reviewers of the study told Oneworld.net.

Since 2004, dozens of experts have reviewed various drafts of the study, including senior scientists at the CDC, Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies, as well as scientists from universities and state governments, according to consumeraffairs.com. Orris is just one of the several experts who reviewed the study and who, along with the International Joint Committee in a December letter to the CDC, have called for the report’s publication.

Canadian biologist Michael Gilbertson, a second peer reviewer, told the Center for Public Integrity that he felt the findings were being suppressed because they were “inconvenient.”  On the record, he added: “The whole problem with all this kind of work is wrapped up in that word ‘injury.’ If you have injury, that implies liability. Liability, of course, implies damages, legal processes, and costs of remedial action. The governments, frankly, in both countries are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry, that the word amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there.”

Orris also raised concerns that the publication may have been halted based on orders outside the CDC.  Once again, it seems that the Bush administration is trying to shrink government by making sure that a federal agency doesn’t do its job—a problem that I wrote about here in a post titled “The FDA– What Happens When You Starve the Beast.” Corporate interests are protected–at the expense of the nation’s citizens.

“I have an overall concern with respect to the culture of this administration, which permeates all levels of the scientific wing of the government,” Orris said. “The administration has regularly cut funds so that they don’t find statistics that could be potentially politically embarrassing — for instance, the sampling of toxins in fish in the Great Lakes has been cut way back.”

“If the messenger doesn’t come with the message, no one knows it’s there,” he added.

CDC spokesperson Bernadette Burden told OneWorld that the report was held back because internal and external reviewers — including the Environmental Protection Agency and several state health departments — identified “numerous discrepancies and deficiencies” and determined a rigorous review was needed. She added that the CDC plans to release the report after the review is completed, in “weeks rather than months.”

Burden cited several examples of “discrepancies”, including the fact that the county-level health data “reflected people’s illnesses from 1988 to 1997, while much of the environmental data used in the report came from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory dated 2001 and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system with 2004 data.”

As Oneworld.net points out, CDC did not clarify why these issues were not identified until July 2007 despite several years of review.

A new director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and ATSDR, Howard Frumkin, was appointed in July 2007, shortly before the report was due to be released.  He replaced De Rosa, who had served as director of the Division of Toxicology for fifteen years. De Rosa was named special assistant in Frumkin’s office — a position that appears to carry “no real responsibilities” according to a Feb. 2008 letter from members of the Congressional Committee on Science and Technologies to CDC director Julie Gerberding. The letter called the move an apparent retaliation.

As many as 9 million people — including residents of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee — may be at risk from exposure to pollutants including pesticides, dioxin, PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), and mercury, according to Sheila Kaplan, an investigative journalist who covered the story for the Center for Public Integrity.

Kaplan has read all three drafts of the study, from 2004 to 2007.

“It’s important for this work to be followed up on,” she told OneWorld. “What I hope from this report is that communities will say, ‘We deserve to know this information and whether exposure to these chemicals and metals is killing us.’ More work needs to be done.”

You will find Kaplan’s full report here.

Maggie Mahar is an award winning journalist and author. A frequent contributor to THCB, her work has appeared in the New York Times, Barron’s and Institutional Investor. She is the author of Money-Driven medicine: The Real Reason Why healthcare costs so much, an examination of the economic forces driving the healthcare system.

8 replies »

  1. A Fréjus (Var) où le FN est arrivé nettement en tête dimanche, le candidat UMP Philippe Mougin est sur la ligne “ni, ni”. Il a déposé mardi sa liste pour le second tour des municipales et rejeté des alliances « politiciennes » avec une candidate socialiste et l’ex-maire DVD. Arrivé dimanche en 2e position avec 18,85% des votes, le candidat UMP n’est pas « partisan d’alliances contre nature entre les deux tours ». « Ces petites combines politiciennes sont une manière d’enclencher une machine à perdre. Je reste sur mes valeurs avec mon équipe », a-t-il commenté. Il a appelé l’ex-maire DVD Elie Brun (arrivé 3e avec 17,61% au 1er tour) et la candidate socialiste Elsa Di Méo menant une liste sans étiquette (4e avec 15,58%) « à prendre leurs responsabilités ». Mme Di Meo et M. Brun avaient proposé de former une liste de rassemblement dirigée par le numéro 3 de la liste Mougin, afin de faire barrage au jeune conseiller régional frontiste David Rachline qui a raflé 40,3% des voix au 1er tour.  « La règle républicaine aurait voulu qu’ils se retirent après le 1er tour », a estimé Philippe Mougin.

  2. Chemicals in lakes and other waterways couldn’t possibly be causing health problems? Where do those chemicals come from? One of Papa Bush’s favorite private equity groups (Carlyle) bought-out Synagro Technologies, a company that processes municipal waste products, transports the resulting “sewer sludge” and distributes it for land application. Residents already living near these sites where sewer sludge has been applied have reported significant health complaints that are associated with the sludge application.
    The Carlyle Group levereaged buyout of Synagro (worth $772 million) will enable it to avoid requirements that Synagro provide to the public, shareholders, and federal agencies such as the SEC certain information about its business practices. As a result of the buyout, Synagro may no longer be required to disclose publicly the existence of regulatory inquiries or legal complaints against the company resulting from health hazards caused by Synagro products and product distribution. Private equity buyout firms such as the Carlyle Group are not required to publicly disclose information about the business practices of the companies they own (like Manor Care Nursing Homes). Private firms keep all their dirty deeds from the public.

  3. So if I rather crudely overlay SEER Breast Cancer Maps available here: http://envirocancer.cornell.edu/map/seer/index.cfm
    On top of an EPA emission Google Earth Layer available here:
    I might begin to get a sense of what is happening myself.
    I understand that my crude layers do not replace better data and analysis. However, my point is two-fold:
    1. The tools are becoming available for anyone to more easily do this sort of research.
    2. We need to make sure that the data is not locked up as well.

  4. Peter and Rene–
    Peter–thanks for your comment.
    Rene- I also would be interested in why you are so certain that chemicals in lakes couldn’t be causing health problems.
    If you haven’t read Kaplan’s entire report, I would urge you to read it. Quite a few doctors and public health experts who have reviewed the report are quoted saying that it should be released so that reserarcher can follow up on cause and effect.
    You might also want to read a story that Sheila Kaplan (who wrote this report for the Center on Integrity) wrote about FEMA using trailers that contained toxins to house victims of Katrinia. It seems that Frumkin was involved in supressing information in that case–and DE Rosa blew the whistle on him.
    Here’s the story (from Salon.com)
    Jan. 29, 2008 | Last summer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was publicly shamed when lawmakers revealed the agency, to avoid lawsuits, put off testing trailers used to house Hurricane Katrina victims for formaldehyde, a toxic chemical. Now, documents obtained by Salon show that FEMA also pressured scientists to water down a report on the health risks of formaldehyde. FEMA officials instructed the scientists to omit any references to cancer or other long-term health risks from exposure to formaldehyde in FEMA trailers.
    In a scathing letter sent today to Dr. Howard Frumkin, chief of the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Reps. Brad Miller, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, and Nick Lampson, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, wrote, “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.” FEMA and ATSDR officials are expected to testify Tuesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security, which is also investigating the matter.
    After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA placed tens of thousands of displaced families in travel trailers, more than 40,000 of which are still in use. Almost immediately, hundreds of families called FEMA to complain of illnesses, from breathing difficulties, bloody noses and rashes to more serious problems, and even deaths, possibly connected to high levels of formaldehyde gas permeating the trailers. Formaldehyde is a nearly colorless gas with a pungent, irritating odor even at low levels. It is used in many products and manufacturing procedures, notably as an adhesive in plywood used to make trailers. Health reports reveal that exposure to formaldehyde can impact fertility and the developing fetus, leading to spontaneous abortion or physical malformations.
    In May 2006, FEMA asked ATSDR to compose a “health consultation” on the FEMA trailers. Dr. Christopher De Rosa, chief of toxicology for ATSDR, told FEMA that any report on health risks of exposure to formaldehyde would have to include information on the risk of cancer and other potential long-term problems. At that point, De Rosa was cut out of the loop. Internal ATSDR documents show that FEMA contacted two of De Rosa’s staffers, who then prepared the misleading consultation. When, nine months later, De Rosa learned ATSDR had omitted the key health information in its advisory, he drafted a letter to FEMA trial attorney Patrick Edward Preston.
    “I am concerned that this health consultation is incomplete and perhaps misleading,” De Rosa wrote. “Formaldehyde is classified as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.’ As such, there is no recognized ‘safe level’ of exposure. Thus, any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk, regardless of duration. Failure to communicate this issue is possibly misleading, and a threat to public health.”
    De Rosa also wrote to Frumkin, noting “FEMA’s initial contact came directly to me nine months ago on this issue.” “I reviewed the proposed statement and specified that they had neglected to address longer term risk including cancer.” After eight months of tense negotiations, a revised report included references to the potentially harmful effects of formaldehyde. But other health information, including the likelihood of other toxic gases, such as toluene, being present, was omitted, as was De Rosa’s insistence that ATSDR call for the government to take immediate action to end formaldehyde exposure to trailer residents and monitor them for long-term harmful effects. Records show that following his protests, De Rosa in October 2007 was “reassigned” out of his long-term post as director of ATSDR’s divison of toxicology and environmental medicine. De Rosa was not available for comment.
    In their letter to Frumkin, the lawmakers wrote, “Yet, even after you were specifically told about the scientifically flawed and potentially misleading information in this report and apparently agreed that it should be amended, your agency did not revise this Health Consultation until seven months later in October 2007. Your lack of urgency in this matter is remarkable.” A call to Frumkin’s office was not returned.
    In an equally contemptuous letter to Michael Chertoff, who, as head of Homeland Security, oversees FEMA, the lawmakers accused the agency of perverting ATSDR’s mission to provide independent health consultations. “Despite that mission, FEMA insisted that ATSDR produce a report that would meet FEMA’s legal and policy goals, not the public health issues of the residents — some of them ill — of those trailers. Incredibly, ATSDR obliged. As a result, ATSDR stands discredited … We have no confidence that the new testing protocols and sampling design agreed to by FEMA and ATSDR for the current testing are any more trustworthy than the previous one.”
    FEMA spokesman James McIntyre acknowledged that the agency did not call for data on long-term effects. In a statement, he wrote: “This agency has and continues to take responsible steps to address formaldehyde in its direct housing units. FEMA has been proactive in reviewing the situation, has recommended a wide range of actions to travel trailer residents that reduce health risks, and has been working with experts to better understand the health environment and to investigate additional short and long-term solutions. The health and safety of residents has been and continues to be our primary concern.”
    In April 2006, the Sierra Club discovered high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers, spurring federal testing. Says Sierra Club spokesman Oliver Bernstein today: “At this point, all we can do is wonder whether FEMA is taking this seriously. Nobody should be living in housing that will make people sick. There are still tens of thousand of people, mostly along the Gulf Coast, still being exposed. It’s another example of politics trumping science.”
    Dr. Heidi Sinclair, medical director of the Children’s Health Project, affiliated with Louisiana State University, was frustrated by the eight-month delay in making the correct information available. “If people had known about the possible long-term consequences, perhaps more of them would have made an effort to find more appropriate housing for the families that have been stuck in these FEMA travel trailers for two and a half years,” she said. “As people moved out, there hasn’t been a system set up to track people. If you are worried about the long-term possible consequences, it would have been nice, before people moved out, to create a database to track the long-term health of families that stayed there for an extended period of time. It’s going to be much harder now to track people down.”

  5. “I am appalled by this story. Not by the CDC report itself or that it was not published. As the report itself noted, all of the links with health outcomes could be do(sic) to random chance.”
    Which chemical company do you work for? Chemicals don’t kill people, people kill people.

  6. I am appalled by this story. Not by the CDC report itself or that it was not published. As the report itself noted, all of the links with health outcomes could be do to random chance. Had Ms Maher read the report and been most interested in objective and factual reporting, that would have been the lead. This attempt at conspiracy theory and misuse of science to scare people is irresponsible, unprofessional and doesn’t help consumers.
    What is appalling is this article and the author’s apparent lack of understanding of cancer clusters, shot-gun/bullseye fallacies, science, toxicology, teratology, oncology and epidemiology. Nor does she appear familiar with prolific research discounting the fears she is insinuating about dioxins and other exposures. Mine enough data (while ignoring other factors that are much more likely causative) and you can find links to anything you want to support an agenda or scare people, but that doesn’t mean the correlations are significant, statistically or clinically.
    Low birth babies seen among certain inner city residents, for example, might more likely to be due to countless other factors not even examined in this unpublished report, such as poverty, poor prenatal care, smoking, food insecurity, teen pregnancies, drug abuse, stresses, and other things far more likely relevant than the conspiracies being hinted at here.