Environment

Published — October 7, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

After the whistle blows

Introduction

Christopher De Rosa, a top scientist at the Centers for Disease Control, is still serving as a scapegoat for leaders at the organization, judging from a new congressional report released Monday about the CDC’s failure to act on dangerous formaldehyde levels reported in trailers for refugees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

De Rosa’s name might be familiar to Center readers because he was the scientist who brought to light (and took significant flak for doing so) the CDC failures on environmental hazards in the Great Lakes area that were the subject of the Center’s Great Lakes Danger Zones.

A staff report released Monday by the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee determined that the CDC’s response to the dangers posed by the trailers “was marred by scientific flaws, ineffective leadership, a sluggish response to inform trailer residents of the potential risks they faced and a lack of urgency to actually move them from harm’s way.” During congressional hearings, two CDC leaders pointed fingers at De Rosa for overlooking errors in the initial assessment, which claimed the trailers were safe. But the subcommittee report shows that it was CDC higher-ups, not De Rosa, who reviewed that assessment.

In 2007, the CDC removed De Rosa from his position as the director of the agency’s division of toxicology and environmental medicine, citing his “unsatisfactory” performance. The subcommittee report asserts that De Rosa was removed from his position in retaliation for his “attempts to push the agency’s leadership to take more substantive actions to protect public health.” De Rosa himself told the Center in his first recorded interview that his advocacy for the residents of the FEMA trailers may have played a part in his demotion:

“I was, I guess, an individual who repeatedly called for a fuller description of health effects, including longer term health effects of the residents of the trailers, because they’ve been there for several years now,” he said. “And I was also very adamant that in addition to doing some additional studies, we should be pursuing health interventions, because we have people — kids, in many cases — presenting clinically with classic signs of formaldehyde toxicity.”

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