Thursday, January 31, 2008

Let Them Breathe Poison

By Cernig

The offhand phrase "let them eat cake" uttered by the King of France' mistress, Marie Antionette, when told the poor didn't have enough bread to eat has ever since been the touchstone of elitist contempt for the common people. But imagine how much worse the impact of her words might have been if she had suggested the homeless should just breathe poison.

Our tireless researcher Kat has flagged up some reports that suggest the Bush administration - in particular FEMA, did exactly that. CNN, on January 29th:
Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, said Tuesday that Federal Emergency Management Agency tried to control the outcome of a scientific study on formaldehyde in trailers used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"Someone from one of the agencies, the CDC, came to our committee and reported that he had information that indicated that good science wasn't followed when a decision was made to allow people to live in basically travel trailers that were not designed to be lived in," said Lampson, chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

In addition, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee -- Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi -- cited medical experts who said prolonged exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can cause ailments ranging from respiratory irritation to cancer.

The committee recently obtained internal CDC e-mail which showed that "despite the efforts of CDC professionals to bring these health risks to the public's attention, those concerns were thwarted by CDC leadership for roughly eight months," Thompson said.
The Clarion-Ledger expanded upon the story the following day:
The House Committee on Science and Technology this week released e-mails from Christopher DeRosa, a CDC scientist analyzing test results on unoccupied trailers in 2006. The e-mails said FEMA repeatedly requested "we specify safe levels of exposure."

"We should be very cautious about the use of the word 'safe' in reference to formaldehyde," De Rosa wrote. "Since it is a carcinogen, it is a matter of science policy that there is no 'safe' level of exposure."
And Salon's Sheila Kaplin had even more:
In May 2006, FEMA asked ATSDR to compose a "health consultation" on the FEMA trailers. Dr. Christopher De Rosa, chief of toxicology for ATSDR, told FEMA that any report on health risks of exposure to formaldehyde would have to include information on the risk of cancer and other potential long-term problems. At that point, De Rosa was cut out of the loop. Internal ATSDR documents show that FEMA contacted two of De Rosa's staffers, who then prepared the misleading consultation. When, nine months later, De Rosa learned ATSDR had omitted the key health information in its advisory, he drafted a letter to FEMA trial attorney Patrick Edward Preston.

"I am concerned that this health consultation is incomplete and perhaps misleading," De Rosa wrote. "Formaldehyde is classified as 'reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.' As such, there is no recognized 'safe level' of exposure. Thus, any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk, regardless of duration. Failure to communicate this issue is possibly misleading, and a threat to public health."

De Rosa also wrote to [chief of the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Dr. Howard] Frumkin, noting "FEMA's initial contact came directly to me nine months ago on this issue." "I reviewed the proposed statement and specified that they had neglected to address longer term risk including cancer." After eight months of tense negotiations, a revised report included references to the potentially harmful effects of formaldehyde. But other health information, including the likelihood of other toxic gases, such as toluene, being present, was omitted, as was De Rosa's insistence that ATSDR call for the government to take immediate action to end formaldehyde exposure to trailer residents and monitor them for long-term harmful effects. Records show that following his protests, De Rosa in October 2007 was "reassigned" out of his long-term post as director of ATSDR's divison of toxicology and environmental medicine. De Rosa was not available for comment.
Following on the back of repeated reports of Bush administration "fixing the science around the policy" on such matters as global warming, abstinence advocacy and stem cell research, this really is the most outrageous one of all. In this case, covering up the true science behind their policy put the lives of U.S. citizens who had already experienced enough tragedy at risk.

Is it too much to call this a crime against humanity? Maybe. But I'd hate to argue the moral distinctions between deliberately using poison gas on your own people and knowingly providing a means for your own people to breath poison fumes in front of even a first year philosophy class.

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