Move comes amid ongoing coverup of key federal health report

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has announced it will make some of the mobile homes sitting empty in an Arkansas field available to victims of the tornadoes that recently devastated the South. Touring the damaged areas last week, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said he'd prefer to place victims in rental properties but that this could be difficult in rural areas. The freak winter storms destroyed more than 800 homes in the hardest-hit states of Arkansas and Tennessee.

While there have been widespread reports about dangerously high formaldehyde levels in FEMA travel trailers provided to people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the agency draws a distinction between those trailers and the larger mobile homes. The agency emphasizes that the mobile homes were manufactured in accordance with federal regulations governing allowable formaldehyde emissions; for more on that distinction, see the FEMA factsheet on the provision of Katrina mobile homes to Indian tribal governments.

However, there have been credible reports that FEMA's mobile homes are also sickening people. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported earlier this month about the plight of a Minnesota couple and their infant daughter who were displaced by last year's historic floods in that state and who moved into a FEMA mobile home originally purchased for Katrina victims. Within three days, they developed serious breathing problems and were ordered by a doctor to remove the baby from the home. People who visited them for brief periods also reported adverse reactions including breathing difficulties and nosebleeds.

Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club activist who has focused on the formaldehyde contamination issue, told the paper that her office has received health complaints from people living in FEMA's mobile homes as well as its travel trailers. "The experience of people we've heard from show that it's just as bad in mobile homes," she said.

We recently reported that FEMA has been accused of meddling into the federal health study of formaldehyde contamination in the trailers and mobile homes it provided to Katrina's displaced. In a more detailed story, Salon reported that in May 2006 FEMA asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to do 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 [ATSDR chief Dr. Howard] 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.
Interestingly, De Rosa and Frumkin are key figures in another alleged coverup of a federal health report. Just last week, the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation describing how the CDC blocked publication of an ATSDR study into environmental hazards in the Great Lakes states reportedly because of alarming findings about pollution-related health problems. Last July, several days before the study was to be released, ATSDR suddenly withdrew it, saying further review was needed.

In a letter to De Rosa, Frumkin said the peer-reviewed study's quality was "well below expectations." After complaining to his bosses that its withholding smacked of scientific censorship, De Rosa was demoted; he's currently trying to get his former position back, claiming the demotion represented illegal retaliation by Frumkin. And there are other examples of ATSDR attempting to squelch inconvenient findings: I've reported elsewhere about the agency's efforts to cover up the conclusions of its own study that linked a rare blood cancer cluster in one Pennsylvania community to environmental factors.

U.S. House Science and Technology Committee members Brad Miller of North Carolina, Nick Lampson of Texas, and Bart Gordon of Tennessee have expressed their concern about improper interference in ATSDR's study of the FEMA trailers and have vowed to investigate further. Gordon has also indicated that the probe will extend beyond FEMA trailers:
"Our Committee has been looking closely at ATSDR for some time and we believe the report on formaldehyde in FEMA trailers may be just the tip of the iceberg. As Chairman, I assure you this will continue garnering the Committee's attention for some time to come."