Centers for Disease Control Forced to Redo Some Math

Matt Slocum/AP

Two federal health and safety agencies on Sunday night heard their names broadcast during a “60 Minutes” follow-up story on the dangers of formaldehyde poisoning from a household laminated flooring product made in China.

A year ago, the CBS News Sunday magazine broke the story that Lumber Liquidators, one of the nation’s top flooring suppliers, was selling products that once installed could cause eye, nose and throat irritation as well as increase risk of cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the flooring product and released a report earlier this month while the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviewed tests of the product commissioned last year by 60 Minutes and then performed its own. But at least one of the agencies made math errors in calculating the risk, CBS correspondent Anderson Cooper reported on Feb. 21.

On Feb. 18, the CDC and its sub-unit, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, put out a statement saying they had been “notified February 13 of an error in [a] report released February 10, 2016, about the possible health effects from exposure to formaldehyde emitted from select laminate flooring samples.” As a result, “the estimated risk of cancer associated with exposure to the flooring increased,” the agencies said.

The problem arose when the two agencies’ indoor air model used an incorrect value for the ceiling height of a typical home. “As a result, the health risks were calculated using airborne concentration estimates about three times lower than they should have been,” with the risk of cancer rising from two-nine cases per 100,000 people, to six-30 cases per 100,000 people, CDC said. The actual risk of cancer, the agency cautioned, is probably lower than the modeled estimate.

On Feb. 10, CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye issued a statement saying his agency was continuing its review of the testing, including its own modeling done in cooperation with Lumber Liquidators. “CPSC has made significant progress with our investigation, and the scientific analysis provided to us by [CDC and] NCEH/ATSDR will help advance our work even further,” he said. Those agencies are “expert at using the best science, taking responsive public health actions, and providing trusted health information. We thank the scientists and leadership at NCEH/ATSDR for their outstanding work, and we encourage consumers who purchased this flooring to read ATSDR’s report” while the CPSC continues its own review.

The CDC said it expected its recommendations to remain the same, which means consumers should reduce exposure to the flooring. A new draft report will be published after a review by the CPSC, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Housing and Urban Development Department, the CDC said.

On Monday, CBS News reported, the Virginia-based Lumber Liquidators’ stock plunged in early trading, though that may also be related to the company’s separate guilty plea last fall in a case involving illegal imports of flooring products.

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