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    Post: Howard Frumkin of ATSDR reassigned

    Posted by Sharon Kramer on 1/24/10

    "Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), the subcommittee' s chairman,
    said in a statement to ProPublica regarding Frumkin's
    reassignment. "The nation needs ATSDR to do honest,
    scientifically rigorous work. There are many capable
    professionals at ATSDR who are committed to doing just

    by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica - January 22, 2010 5:56 pm

    Dr. Howard Frumkin, the embattled director of a little-
    known, but important division of the Centers for Disease
    Control and Prevention, has been reassigned to a position
    with less authority, a smaller staff and a lower budget.

    Frumkin had led the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and
    Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for
    Environmental Health since 2005. For the past two years he
    had endured scathing criticism from Congress and the media
    for ATSDR's poor handling of public health problems created
    by the formaldehyde- contaminated trailers that the
    government provided to Hurricane Katrina victims. The
    agency, which assesses public health risks posed by
    environmental hazards, also was criticized for understating
    the health risks of several other, less-publicized cases.

    An internal CDC e-mail sent by Frumkin on Jan. 15 and
    obtained by ProPublica said he was leaving his position
    that day and would become a special assistant to the CDC's
    director of Climate Change and Public Health. His old job
    will be temporarily filled by Henry Falk, who led ATSDR
    from 2003 to 2005.

    In the e-mail, Frumkin praised his staff and described more
    than 20 ATSDR accomplishments during his tenure. They
    include strengthening the agency's tobacco laboratory and
    creating the Climate Change and Public Health program.

    A CDC spokesman said Frumkin's transfer shouldn't be
    considered a demotion but rather a change of function and
    responsibilities that the CDC's director, Dr. Thomas
    Frieden, said would benefit both the agency and Dr.
    Frumkin, who is a recognized expert on climate change. But
    Frumkin's authority has been sharply reduced, even though
    his salary won't change. Previously, he oversaw two
    departments with a combined budget of about $264 million
    and 746 full-time employees. Now he will be an assistant to
    the director of a new program that has a budget of about
    $7.5 million, five full-time employees and five
    contractors, two of whom are part time.

    Through a CDC spokesman, Frumkin declined a request to be
    interviewed for this story.

    In 2008, ProPublica reported [1] that Frumkin and others
    failed to take action after learning that ATSDR botched a
    study [2] on the trailers provided to Katrina victims. The
    Federal Emergency Management Agency used the study to
    assure trailer occupants that the formaldehyde levels
    weren't high enough to harm them. ATSDR never corrected
    FEMA, even though Christopher De Rosa, who led ATSDR's
    toxicology and environmental medicine division, repeatedly
    warned Frumkin that the report didn't take into account the
    long-term health consequences of exposure to formaldehyde,
    like cancer risks.

    Frumkin eventually reassigned De Rosa to the newly created
    position of assistant director for toxicology and risk
    analysis. De Rosa went from leading a staff of about 70
    employees to having none. He has since left the agency and
    is starting a nonprofit that will consult with communities
    close to environmental hazards.

    The involvement of Frumkin and ATSDR in the formaldehyde
    debacle was the focus of an April 2008 Congressional
    hearing held by a subcommittee of the House Science and
    Technology Committee. A report [3] by the subcommittee' s
    Democratic majority, released that October, concluded that
    the failure of ATSDR's leadership "kept Hurricane Katrina
    and Rita families living in trailers with elevated levels
    of formaldehyde. ..for at least one year longer than

    About six months after the report came out, the same panel,
    the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, held
    another hearing [4] that touched on other problems at ATSDR.

    Before that hearing, the Democrats on the subcommittee
    released a report [5] that revealed other cases in which
    the agency relied on scientifically flawed data, causing
    other federal agencies to mislead communities about the
    dangers of their exposure to hazardous substances.
    For example, an ATSDR report about water contamination at
    Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, said
    the chemically-tainted drinking water didn't pose an
    increased cancer risk to residents there. The report was
    used to deny at least one veteran's medical benefits for
    ailments that the veteran believed were related to the

    A month after the subcommittee hearing, ATSDR, rescinded
    [6] some of its findings, saying it didn't adequately
    consider the presence of benzene, a carcinogen that it
    found in the water.

    Eight months later, the agency said it would modify another
    report that was criticized at the hearing, about a bomb
    testing site in Vieques, Puerto Rico. For decades, the U.S.
    military used the site to test ammunition that contained
    depleted uranium and other toxins. In a 2003 report, ATSDR
    said that heavy metals and explosive compounds found on
    Vieques weren't harmful to people living there. But Frumkin
    decided to take a fresh look at those findings because
    ATSDR hadn't thoroughly investigated the site.

    Subcommittee investigators acknowledged that Frumkin
    inherited many of the problems in the report from previous
    ATSDR directorsó the original Vieques and Camp Lejeune
    reports were both done before Frumkin was named director in
    2005. But the investigators said he was aware of the
    agency's problems and did little to fix them unless he was
    under political pressure. A CDC spokesman said that
    Frumkin's reassignment had nothing to do with the
    congressional inquiries.

    "Americans should know when their government tells them
    that they have nothing to worry about from environmental
    exposure that they really have nothing to worry about,"
    Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), the subcommittee' s chairman, said
    in a statement to ProPublica regarding Frumkin's
    reassignment. "The nation needs ATSDR to do honest,
    scientifically rigorous work. There are many capable
    professionals at ATSDR who are committed to doing just

    Write to Joaquin Sapien at joaquin.sapien@ propublica. org

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