Senior CDC Official (Howard Frumkin) Reassigned

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Jan 24, 2010, 2:21:37 PM1/24/10
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by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica - January 22, 2010 5:56 pm EST

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 necessary."

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
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 contamination.

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 directors— 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 that."

Write to Joaquin Sapien at joaquin.sapien@ propublica. org [7].

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