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Change at CDC Draws Protest

She called NIOSH Director John Howard "a national treasure." Although Howard will now be one step removed from her "on paper," Gerberding said, she will nonetheless be available to him "day and night."

"I am committed to public health research, worker health and safety," she said.

President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill on Dec. 29, 1970, setting national occupational health and safety standards. (AP)

Few seem to doubt Gerberding's good intentions, but few are convinced that NIOSH will survive unscathed.

"To downgrade NIOSH and blur its mission by combining key functions with other CDC programs will erode its independence and visibility and weaken the scientific contribution that has long benefited American workers and employers," the four living former NIOSH directors wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson last month.

Others suggested the move is part of a larger administration effort to politicize science -- a concern exacerbated by the significant role Kent C. "Oz" Nelson played in designing the Futures Initiative. Nelson is chairman of the CDC Foundation's board of directors and former chief executive of United Parcel Service, which fought the Clinton administration's efforts to set ergonomics standards for preventing workplace musculoskeletal injuries.

A letter sent to Gerberding by an online network of occupational health professionals said the NIOSH move "is particularly troublesome given the serious erosion of worker safety and health protection under the Bush administration through repeal of the ergonomics standard and withdrawal of standards to prevent TB in the workplace."

By all accounts, Gerberding has listened to her critics -- even hosting a meeting Aug. 10 for about 30 worker-health organization representatives, which was mediated by a professional communications manager.

She expressed real concern and passion for NIOSH, said Franklin E. Mirer, director of health and safety for the United Auto Workers International Union. But in the end, he said, "the message to us was 'Get over it. This is a done deal.' "

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the CDC, rejected the notion that the deal was indeed done.

"I am not going to go along with the change," he said in an interview. He said he intends to have a hearing on the subject before October.

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