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May 20, 2010
Subcommittee Investigates CDC’s Environmental Health Policies and Practices, Provides Agency with Roadmap for the Future
(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing to examine the policies and procedures used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (NCEH/ATSDR). NCEH and ATSDR serve as the CDC’s experts in performing environmental health evaluations. Specifically, Subcommittee Members reviewed the agency’s ability to assess, validate and release public health documents. In addition, Members questioned a witness from CDC, Dr. Robin Ikeda. She responded to specific questions about CDC officials relying upon flawed science and incomplete data to draw critical public health conclusions, such as the DC lead-in-the-water crisis and public health investigations on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico.
“In prior hearings we documented problems with ATSDR’s work on formaldehyde and the safety of trailers provided to families that survived Hurricane Katrina. We also documented problems with ATSDR environmental assessments at Camp LeJeune, Vieques, Puerto Rico and Midlothian, Texas. Three of the four cases mentioned have seen the health evaluations withdrawn by ATSDR, and the fourth case is under review,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC). “We need more honesty and transparency and less attitude from these offices. When you work at a public health science agency and the words most frequently used are ‘haphazard,’ ‘hit-or-miss’ and ‘ad hoc,’ maybe you should pause and reflect.”
Among the cases reviewed at today’s hearing was that of Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. From 1941 to 2003 the U.S. Navy engaged in live bombing practice activities on and off the coast of Vieques Island in Puerto Rico spreading munitions containing toxic chemicals into the sea and local ecosystem. In November of 2003, ATSDR released a summary of its work on the island, stating that the Vieques residents were not harmed from exposure to toxic chemicals from the Navy training activities. In fact ATSDR said that “It is safe to eat seafood from the coastal waters and near-shore lands on Vieques.” Dr. John Wargo of Yale testified about problems with the assessment done by ATSDR, an assessment that was withdrawn in 2009, as well as about the limits of ATSDR’s new effort to evaluate health effects on the island.
“The injustice toward the people of the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques must end. Vieques was used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy from World War II until 2003 and the munitions from the bombs have severely impacted the health of the residents. Yet in 2003, ATSDR issued a much criticized report that said that the levels of toxins and contaminants posed no health risk,” said Rep. Steven Rothman (D-NJ). “Now that ATSDR is committed to a new health assessment that reflects scientific-based and credible recommendations, I am hopeful that we will finally be able to bring justice to Vieques. The time for the U.S. government to right this wrong has come.”
The CDC also failed to adequately validate public health data and protect the public’s health during the Washington, D.C. lead-in-water crisis in 2004. In January of 2004, The Washington Post published a story that informed the public for the first time that water tests conducted the previous summer by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) showed that thousands of DC homes, two- thirds of those tested, had elevated lead levels in their tap water above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) limit of 15 parts-per-billion (ppb). The Subcommittee released a staff report, A Public Heath Tragedy: How Flawed CDC Data and Faulty Assumptions Endangered Children’s Health in the Nation’s Capitol,which detailed its investigation into the CDC’s response to this crisis today. The staff report documents the serious flaws in the original CDC article, Blood Lead Levels in Residents of Homes with Elevated Lead in Tap Water — District of Columbia, 2004, which was widely cited as evidence that there was no public health crisis due to elevated water lead levels. Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech also testified before the Subcommittee regarding his findings that there was a strong correlation between lead in water levels and elevated lead levels in children living in Washington D.C. during this crisis.
The GAO also released a report at the hearing, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Policies and Procedures for Preparing Public Health Products Should Be Strengthened. The GAO report concluded the policies and procedures ATSDR established for preparing and releasing its public health documents lacked the “critical controls to provide reasonable assurance of product quality.” In addition, the report found that the agency also lacks a comprehensive risk assessment process for evaluating priorities regarding its development, review and release of public health documents. These assessments have been widely criticized. Dr. Cynthia Bascetta of GAO testified to their findings, and her testimony was reinforced by testimony from Mr. Stephen Lester of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Mr. Lester has been working on ATSDR-related issues for two decades.
In introducing the hearing, Miller said, “This Subcommittee cannot possibly identify every mistaken evaluation, assessment, report or article done by ATSDR or NCEH staff, and that is not the role of Congressional oversight. The CDC must take all necessary steps to set these offices on the right path.”
In an effort to improve the environmental public health practices at CDC, especially those carried out by NCEH/ATSDR, Chairman Miller offered a roadmap to reform the agencies policies and practices. The roadmap stresses five key points:
· Develop study designs that can actually identify a suspected health problem;
- Ensure proper data collection and evaluation, and be more transparent about the limits of the data used;
- Establish rigorous and consistent internal and external reviews of study designs, data collection and quality, analytical methods and conclusions;
- Establish consistent policies and procedures for conducting public health research and interventions, and for publications; and
- Be open to learning of problems with the agency’s products from critics;
Mr. Miller said the new CDC Director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has an opportunity to promote needed change at the agencies. “I congratulate Dr. Frieden for initiating a search for a new leader of ATSDR-NCEH. We need a new team there that can restore staff confidence, provide guidance about quality and processes, and give to this country a function we so desperately need: reliable, expert evaluation of environmental health dangers.”
This is the third hearing the Subcommittee has held on ATSDR’s public health practices. On March 12, 2009 the Subcommittee examined the agency’s previous problems and potential future issues/problems. On April 1, 2008, the Subcommittee held a hearing on the toxic FEMA trailers housing hurricane victims and examined how and why ATSDR failed to protect the public’s health.
For more information on the Committee’s work on ATSDR/CDC, please visit our website.
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