April 11, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

We’ve written before about how the beryllium industry – and Brush Wellman in particular – staved off OSHA’s attempt to revise the beryllium exposure limit (blog post here, article here). Their chief tactics were denying the validity of evidence showing the existing standard was insufficiently protective, and then, when that was no longer credible, insisting that more research was needed before the limit could be changed.

Now, CBS News Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian raises the question of whether CDC officials caved to political and corporate pressure in dramatically downscaling a health study of residents living near Brush Wellman’s largest beryllium-manufacturing plant:

In 2001, in response to community concerns, the CDC began looking at whether beryllium dust from the plant was a health hazard. By 2005, CDC scientists pledged a thorough investigation – with blood tests for up to 200 residents and household dust readings. …

In the spring of 2006, Brush Wellman threatened to withdraw plans for a new multi-million dollar plant because of the CDC research.

At the urging of the company president, then-Ohio Gov. Bob Taft sent a handwritten note, obtained by CBS News to Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services. In it, he complained that actions in Elmore by the CDC’s agency for toxic substances, known as ATSDR, “are a deterrent to choosing Ohio,” adding, “Please have someone look into this and get back to me…”

Within days, the note was forwarded from Leavitt’s office to that of CDC Director Julie Gerberding, and quickly passed down to ATSDR managers.

By April 14, an internal document reveals the agency was now taking “…a fresh look at scientific and related … issues,” and a “more limited approach” in Elmore. Only 18 residents – not 200 – would get blood tests.

Household dust readings were out.

In September 2006, just five months after the Ohio governor had sent his letter and shortly after ATSDR had packed its bags and left town, Brush Wellman decided that Elmore would be the site of its new 100,000-square-foot production facility.

Here’s an exchange between Keteyian and Dr. Thomas Sinks, deputy director of CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, about whether the agency’s decision was influenced:

Sinks: There was no political pressure that affected our decision of what we were going to do.

Keteyian: No pressure from the governor of Ohio? No pressure from Secretary Leavitt? No pressure from Dr. Gerberding, who runs this agency?

Sinks: I received no pressure that would have altered a decision that we made to go forward to use the most definitive tests we could.

So … there was political pressure, but it didn’t matter because the agency would’ve made the same decision anyway? That doesn’t make me feel any better about CDC.

In a post on CBS’s Primary Source blog, Keteyian and Investigative Producer Michael Rey point out that this is one of multiple incidents that have raised Congressional concern about the CDC:

In recent months the CDC has come under increasing pressure from agency insiders and other sources who question whether political or corporate pressure have resulted in “deficient, incomplete and/or muted reports, studies or Health Consultations.” Three cases stand out: what critics have called the CDC’s “indefensible handling” of the issue of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers; a study on toxic dumping sites in the Great Lakes region; and community testing for the toxic dust beryllium around Brush Wellman plant in Elmore.

In other words has a sacred trust between the nation’s top public health agency and the people it’s sworn to protect been broken?

Or, as Katie Couric put it in her introduction, did CDC officials “put politics before public health concerns”?

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