In what must have seemed like a cruel irony, Christopher De Rosa learned of his reassignment within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last October when he attended an annual event in Italy honoring the legacy of Bernardino Ramazzini, the late 17th and early 18th century Italian physician noted for his work on occupational diseases. At a dinner there, a CDC colleague handed De Rosa a memorandum explaining he would no longer serve as director of toxicology and environmental medicine, a position he held for 15 years.
The position change came about after De Rosa had expressed concerns regarding the scope of a study about formaldehyde levels in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. The initial request from FEMA came in the spring of 2006, when De Rosa says he was asked to review a document that related to unoccupied trailers. At the time, De Rosa says he told FEMA that the short-term effects were properly characterized, but the long-term effects had not been addressed.
In February 2007, De Rosa saw a report about the topic that had been co-authored by two members of his staff without his knowledge. When I had determined it did not address long-term effects, I called management and wrote later in the day and felt it was important to amend the consultation to include long-term effects, De Rosa says.
In the following months, De Rosa says children were presenting clinicallynose bleeds, skin rashes, classic signs of the short-term effects of exposure to formaldehyde, and that in addition to further analysis, he urged the agency to engage in interventions.
The response I received is that I shouldnt be stating such things in e-mails because it could be misunderstood, he says.
Things heated up late last month when two committees of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology sent letters to FEMA, asking why the federal agency tried to control the outcome of a health guidance report on formaldehyde in trailers used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina. (The CDC initially conducted analysis on unoccupied trailers because, De Rosa says, researchers do not have to contend with residents living in the trailers or their lifestyle habits; on Feb. 14, the CDC released new data on 519 occupied trailers and mobile homes tested between December 2007 and January 2008.)
As for his reassignment, De Rosa says he was told that he was not a team player. It was not my choice, and I was responsible for a division since 1992 that was at the time a group of 20-plus individuals and (is) now between 60 and 70 individuals, says De Rosa, who now has no staff. I knew I was speaking truth to authority, or trying to, and I knew I was doing so at my own peril, he says.
Glen Nowak, chief of media relations at the CDC, called the issue a personnel action I cant speak to. He and De Rosa disagree on De Rosas current title, which De Rosa says is assistant director for toxicology and risk analysis and Nowak describes as special assistant for toxicology in the office of the director for the National Center for Environmental Health.