CDC Makes Progress (Sort of) on Katrina Children’s Health Study

Will a ProPublica investigation force FEMA and the CDC to finally follow up on the health effects of formaldehyde in evacuee trailers?

Photo courtesy of Bill Starling/ProPublica


This story was first published on ProPublica.org.

Remember that study the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promised it would do to track the health of children who lived in formaldehyde-contaminated trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina victims?

Well, the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally hit the send button on a database that the CDC needs to start the study. But the database doesn’t necessarily include the current addresses of the victims, making it difficult for the CDC to track down potential participants.

“We don’t generally capture a specific address for where the
occupants went after they leave our program,” said Johnathan Torres, a
program specialist for FEMA’s Housing Operations Unit. “But we always
know their pre-disaster residence.”

Unfortunately for the CDC,
the people who lived in the trailers are a highly mobile part of the
population. Many didn’t move back to their former addresses, because
their homes were destroyed by the hurricane.

The last time we reported
on this, Dr. Heidi Sinclair, a pediatrician based in Baton Rouge, La.,
commented on the difficulty of CDC’s task. “These people are going to
be impossible to track down. Most of them have pay-as-you-go cell
phones and have already moved,” Sinclair said. “CDC should have started
doing this a year before they wanted to start the study.”

Exposure
to formaldehyde can increase the risk of cancer and asthma attacks and
can cause severe skin, ear, nose and throat irritations, especially
among children and the elderly. The chemical is found in the glue that
is used to make plywood and particleboard in most trailers.

In February 2008, the CDC released test results
showing that people living in the trailers were exposed to levels of
formaldehyde far higher than what the government considers safe. This
countered the conclusions of a CDC study done a year earlier, which was
misused (PDF) by FEMA to tell Congress and the public that the formaldehyde did not reach “a level of concern.”

The
CDC started talking about doing a long-term examination of how children
were affected by the formaldehyde more than a year ago, but it still
hasn’t finalized a methodology for the study, according to Michael
McGeehin, the CDC official leading it.

In an e-mail to
ProPublica this week, McGeehin added that the agency won’t reveal the
details of the methodology until “a candidate is chosen to serve as a
contractor on this project” and the contractor gets a chance to help
shape the methodology.

A CDC PowerPoint presentation
(PDF) obtained by ProPublica shows that the CDC had originally planned
to get the study’s methodology approved by the White House’s Office of
Management and Budget in May 2008. But the CDC didn’t request the data it just received from FEMA until June 2008. FEMA previously cited privacy concerns to explain why it didn’t provide the information sooner.

We
have submitted a FOIA request for the database to see if we can get a
sense of how many current addresses are in it. To avoid any privacy
issues, we asked the CDC to redact names of individuals in the data.