Image: FEMA trailers
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
An unidentified contractor inspects wind damage at a FEMA mobile home park in in Greensburg, Kan., in August. The trailers were brought in after a tornado destroyed most of the town.
updated 4/1/2008 6:36:22 PM ET 2008-04-01T22:36:22

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 on a day when test results from the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed that some of the thousands of mobile homes stored for possible use by disaster victims have formaldehyde levels rivaling those of housing already deemed unsafe for victims of the 2005 hurricanes.

Three of 32 mobile homes tested for use in Arkansas had levels high enough to put people at an increased risk of cancer and respiratory illnesses, according to test results obtained by The Associated Press.

Risks downplayed, Democrats allege
De Rosa spoke at a House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing on how the CDC and its sister agencies handled complaints about trailers issued by FEMA.

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.

"Your agency failed to protect public health," said Nick Lampson, D-Texas.

When complaints of possible formaldehyde poisoning surfaced, FEMA officials insisted in early 2006 that the trailers were safe. But after coming under increasing pressure, FEMA enlisted the CDC's help to test them.

Formaldehyde, well known as a preservative and embalming fluid, is commonly used in building materials. Prolonged exposure can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.

The CDC initially said in February 2007 that, with proper ventilation, formaldehyde levels were safe in the short term. FEMA immediately 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.

CDC raises alarm
But it wasn't until this February that the CDC released preliminary results from more testing showing that FEMA trailers and mobile homes had formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than in most modern homes.

The CDC urged people to move as quickly as possible, prompting FEMA to say it would rush to find new housing for some 35,000 families still living in the trailers.

As they have done previously, De Rosa's bosses at the toxic substances agency, director Howard Frumkin and deputy director Thomas Sinks, acknowledged that the agency took too long to address the formaldehyde hazard, in part because little is known about its risks.

But they said there was never any effort to silence De Rosa or mislead the public.

"I regret that our initial work on formaldehyde in trailers did not meet our own expectations," Frumkin said. "In some respects, we could and should have done better."

The agency is reviewing its procedures, he said, and is planning a five-year study of children who lived in the trailers in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., called De Rosa a whistleblower, noting that the nearly 30-year employee was recently removed from his job and assigned to another division.

Frumkin said De Rosa, who also has gained attention as the author of a controversial study on pollution around the Great Lakes, was transferred for internal personnel reasons, not as a result of his work on the trailers.

New tests find problems
The recent tests were conducted on some of the more than 7,500 mobile homes are being stored at Hope Municipal Airport. FEMA had a contractor test to see if they were suitable for storm victims in Arkansas and Tennessee, which were hit by deadly tornadoes Feb. 5.

Arkansas is still deciding whether to accept any FEMA mobile homes; Tennessee has taken 16 but set a formaldehyde limit.

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, said the governor would meet with advisers Wednesday to discuss whether the state should accept any of the mobile homes.

"Obviously, we want to get some information out to our storm victims as quickly as we can," DeCample said.

In Oregon, FEMA shipped 21 mobile homes for those affected by December flooding in the logging community of Vernonia, just northwest of Portland, said Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for Oregon Emergency Management. She said the mobile homes had an average formaldehyde level of 22 parts per billion.

"The formaldehyde levels were so low it just wasn't even an issue," Bailey said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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