WASHINGTON — A federal scientist said Tuesday his bosses ignored pleas to alert Gulf Coast hurricane victims earlier about severe health risks from formaldehyde in government-issued trailers and once told him not to write e-mails about his concerns.
Christopher De Rosa, who until recently was one of the government's top toxicologists, told a congressional panel that he repeatedly raised concerns early last year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not adequately informing the public of the hazard, even as symptoms of dangerous exposure were surfacing.
As a result, tens of thousands of families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita remained in the trailers without full knowledge of the risks, he said.
"I stated that such clinical signs were a 'harbinger of a pending public health catastrophe,' " De Rosa said in written testimony, quoting one series of e-mails he wrote to superiors last summer. "I stressed the importance of alerting the trailer residents to the potential reproductive, developmental and carcinogenic effects & (but) the only response I received was that such matters should not be discussed in e-mails since they might be 'misinterpreted.' "
De Rosa's comments came Tuesday at a House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing on how the CDC and its sister agencies handled complaints about trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Committee Democrats accuse FEMA of manipulating scientific research to downplay the dangers. They say the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, where De Rosa worked, went along with the effort.
When complaints of possible formaldehyde poisoning surfaced, FEMA officials insisted in early 2006 that the trailers were safe. But after coming under pressure, FEMA enlisted the CDC's help to test them.
Formaldehyde is commonly used in building materials. Prolonged exposure can lead to breathing problems and is believed to cause cancer.
The CDC initially said in February 2007 that, with proper ventilation, formaldehyde levels were safe in the short-term. FEMA began citing the advisory as evidence that the trailers were safe.
De Rosa said he protested immediately that the CDC should more aggressively address the matter and that the advisory didn't include broader warnings about longer-term health risks, including for cancer.
But it wasn't until February 2008 that the CDC released preliminary results from additional testing showing that FEMA trailers and mobile homes had formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than in most modern homes.
Meanwhile, test results obtained by the Associated Press on Tuesday showed that some of the thousands of mobile homes being stored for use by future disaster victims have formaldehyde levels rivaling those used after the 2005 hurricanes.