The Centers for Disease Control is postponing the release of a report detailing areas of environmental concern and human health problems in the Great Lakes region. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Christopher De Rosa, who was director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at the CDC and oversaw the report. De Rosa was demoted when his work on toxins in the Great Lakes, and on formaldehyde in FEMA trailers for Hurricane Katrina survivors, was publicized.
CURWOOD: The US scientific community more and more is speaking out about what they see as improper governmental interference in conducting and disseminating research.
The latest call for scientific integrity comes from the American Association for the Advancement of Science at its annual meeting in Boston. One case in point is the work of toxicologist Christopher De Rosa at the Centers for Disease Control.
First he came under fire for disclosing that FEMA trailers provided to people displaced by Katrina contain formaldehyde, which is suspected to cause cancer. And now the CDC is refusing to release a report that Dr. De Rosa supervised about cancer rates and other health effects and pollution in contaminated areas around the Great Lakes. He was recently demoted and stripped of supervisory authority.
Dr. De Rosa, welcome to Living on Earth.
DE ROSA: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Dr. De Rosa, tell me about this Great Lakes study, what kind of substances were people being exposed to in the region?
DE ROSA: Well you might imagine it’s a range of the usual suspects. Things like dioxin, mercury, alkyl lead, hexachlorobenzene, DDT, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, and the list would go on.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the health problems that you found in these 26 areas of concern. In particular, what did you see in terms of cancer, infant mortality, premature birth, that sort of thing.
DE ROSA: Well we did see some elevated rates of breast cancer. There were elevated rates in 17 out of 26 of the areas of concern. Colon cancer, there we see 16 areas of concern with elevated rates, and in the case of lung cancer, 12. There were also some perinatal effects that we observed. For example, low birth weights in six of the 21 counties, infant death in 21 of the 26, also deficits in fertility. There were deficits in immune function, which is significant because some of the chemicals, such as PCBs do affect the immune system and suppress the immune system.
CURWOOD: Your agency is declining to release this report, why?
DE ROSA: The actual reasons for not doing so have not necessarily been shared with me formally but I do know that among the terms that have been used are that it may be “alarming” and that it required further review.
CURWOOD: Dr. De Rosa, we called the CDC and reached a spokesperson there, Glen Nowak, and asked him this very question as to why the report wasn’t being released and he had this to say about the quality of the report.
NOWAK: There were two or three major concerns. One was that the environmental data that was presented in the report was more recent than the health indicator data and so if you’re trying to look for associations that should be reversed. Another concern was that the health data that was presented in the report didn’t map very well with respect with the areas of concern that were looked at on environmental issues.
CURWOOD: So the criticism of this by your own agency is that this report unfairly correlates areas having high levels of toxic substances and human health problems, but is that fair to say? Do you try to make that correlation in this report?
DE ROSA: No. Not at all. In fact repeatedly it’s stated that that is not the intended purpose of the report, it’s simply to give communities ready access to the most recently available information that they’ve already paid for as tax-payers.
CURWOOD: On the one hand we have this report that you worked so hard on, that the government does not want to release. On the other hand we have a report that you put together about the effects of formaldehyde coming out of the furnishings inside the FEMA trailers that caused so much consternation when this material got out into the public, and we see your demotion inside the department. It sure looks political to me.
DE ROSA: Well you know, the word political to me, I think it’s in Webster, it’s refers to as the wise use of power. The point being that I was responsible for oversight of a division of 60-70 highly trained technical individuals that I’d been working with since arriving here at the agency, and I now have no such responsibility.
CURWOOD: You supervise yourself and the space between your desk and the wastebasket.
DE ROSA: Well, it really extends over to the door. No, I’m just being facetious. I do not have any supervisory responsibilities.
CURWOOD: How do you feel about the government suppressing this report that could be used for neighborhoods, communities to take steps to protect the health of their citizens?
DE ROSA: The only thing I can share with you there Steve, is that what I have stated, perhaps to my own detriment, is that I am concerned that there is important health information that is not being shared with the public and that this might have implications for their health.
CURWOOD: Dr. Christopher De Rosa is the Assistant Director for Toxicology and Risk Analysis at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control. Thank you so much sir.
DE ROSA: My pleasure.
CURWOOD: The CDC says Dr. De Rosa’s study is still under review. For more information and to see parts of an unofficial draft of the report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, go to our website, L-O-E dot org.
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