Thursday, October 25, 2007

CDC director denies she was censored on climate report

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, sent a letter to President Bush seeking all drafts of the written testimony for comparison with what Gerberding presented at a committee hearing Tuesday.

Boxer also asked the White House to disclose which officials were involved in reviewing her statement and what led to the deletion of nearly seven pages about the health consequences of climate change.

"I am deeply concerned that important scientific and health information was removed from the CDC Director's testimony at the last minute," Boxer said in the letter.

The Bush administration has repeatedly been accused of muzzling scientists on global warming and other issues. This year, for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was accused of censoring its polar bear experts on the subject of climate change.

Allegations denied

Officials at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention denied they'd been censored. But an earlier version of the written testimony, reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shows that Gerberding had planned to give the committee a detailed account of the agency's expectations of more frequent catastrophic weather events, diseases and other health effects of worldwide climate change.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the testimony simply went through a normal review process to ensure it reflected current science.

Perino said nobody censored Gerberding.

"It was not watered-down in terms of its science. It wasn't watered-down in terms of the concerns that climate change raises for public health," she said.

Gerberding said Wednesday she was happy with her testimony and that the review process was normal. In a lunch-hour speech before the Atlanta Press Club, Gerberding said she made all the points to Congress that she wanted to make.

"This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Gerberding said of the furor. "I don't let people put words in my mouth. I spoke the truth to Congress."

The testimony went through many versions, perhaps as many as 40, Gerberding said. "This was not an issue of someone trying to cover up a connection between climate change and health," she said.

The 12-page draft reviewed by the AJC differs significantly from the final six-page version submitted to the Senate committee.

The shorter version focuses on public health preparedness for climate change, including how the CDC is tracking diseases, doing heat-stroke modeling for cities to predict vulnerable populations and helping local officials plan for environmental emergencies.

The draft version contained an additional six pages explaining why climate change is a public health concern. Deleted passages describe the expected impact of climate change, including new disease patterns and food and water shortages for some people.

The deleted testimony included predictions about the potential consequences of increased air pollution, the rampant growth of plants that cause allergies and the creation of environments that promote water- and food-borne disease.

"Catastrophic weather events such as heat waves and hurricanes are expected to become more frequent, severe, and costly," the deleted section said.

Dr. Michael McCally, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, called the deletions "very significant." The committee only gave Gerberding and other witnesses five minutes each to testify, he said.

"You have to rely on written testimony. So her ability to communicate with the committee was constrained," McCally said. "The administration has censored various climate reports in the past. This may well be the case here."

More to the deletions?

To the Union of Concerned Scientists, it appears Gerberding was censored. "At first blush this is consistent with what we've seen throughout the Bush administration on climate change," said Michael Halpern, outreach coordinator of the group's Scientific Integrity Program.

Some environmentalists and science watchdogs questioned whether the deletions indicate that CDC's scientists will be prevented from studying and preventing climate-related health problems.

"It's my sense that CDC remains very interested in global warming as a central public health issue on which they plan to focus," said Kim Knowlton, a science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Will they be allowed to follow through to the best of their ability? That is the question."

CDC has publicized protecting the public from the health effects of climate change as a major initiative. Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said that hasn't changed.

"I have not seen any barriers to our moving forward," Frumkin said Wednesday. "Fears that this is going to stop us are unfounded." Frumkin declined to discuss details how testimony written by his staff was reviewed by the White House.

Perino said she didn't know whether the various drafts of Gerberding's testimony would be released to Congress. CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the agency hasn't yet received a request.

-- To reach staff writer Alison Young, call 404-526-7372.

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