A Broken Trust? Congress Takes On The CDC

This post was written by Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian and Investigative Producer Michael Rey.

As part of its continuing investigation into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a major House subcommittee is now taking dead aim at whether "political pressure" caused the CDC to "scale down or cancel" beryllium testing in Elmore, Ohio, the subject of our exclusive investigation on the CBS Evening News.

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?

In a stinging five-page letter sent yesterday to CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., came out swinging. He told Gerberding his committee had obtained documents [that] "raise serious questions about the influence politically-connected companies may have…on investigating this [beryllium testing] and other potential public health hazards."

Miller's letter also calls into question the actions of the president of Brush Wellman, which owned and operated the beryllium plant in Elmore, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, Gerberding and CDC Deputy Director Thomas Sinks.

Perhaps the most damning document cited in the committee letter is an internal background paper written on April 14, 2006 – just 11 days after Brush Wellman President Richard Hipple complained about CDC testing to Taft. The document, according to the letter, "acknowledges that ATSDR [the CDC's toxic substance agency] did curtail its investigation at the behest of the industry."

There's more: The April 14 background paper also states: "ATSDR's current proposal is scaled back significantly from the approach contemplated earlier, based in part on consideration of concerns raised by the County Commissioners and Brush Wellman…..and "ATSDR's senior management will personally review all comments offered by the company and the county commissioners and ATSDR proposed responses to the comments." According to the letter the man leading the agency's handling of the investigation was Deputy Director Sinks.

The committee has requested a raft of records relating to the case and given the Gerberding until April 23, 2008, to deliver them. Not soon enough for many people in Elmore left wondering whether it's safe to breath the air around the plant – or not.