What Would George Say–Academic Or Advocate?

A new ethics question has popped up in the ongoing lead-in-D.C.’s-water saga as concerned Washington, D.C., residents and ethics experts ask: Did the D.C. Water & Sewer Authority (DC WASA) hire an academic or an advocate when the utility signed a contract with Tee Guidotti, the former chair of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University (GWU), to provide public health expertise about lead in drinking water? In two research papers and numerous lectures and public statements, Guidotti and his team showed that the D.C. lead-in-drinking-water crisis from 2001 to 2004 had no identifiable public health impact. This work, funded in part by DC WASA, is coming under scrutiny due to recent publication of an Environmental Science & Technology paper, Edwards et al. 2009, which says that from 2001 to 2004, hundreds of babies and toddlers in Washington had elevated levels of blood lead as a result of the tap water contamination. Language in the contract between GWU and DC WASA appears to contradict GWU’s own policy concerning the freedom of academics (PDF) to publish their work without approval from sponsors. The entire contract raises questions about the relationship between Guidotti and D.C. WASA, says Sheldon Krimsky, an ethics expert at Tufts University. “It represents a classic consultancy in which the sponsor has complete control of the output: the consultant is advisory to the sponsor,” he says. The relationship has been questioned before. About a year ago, the university received at least two complaints alleging that Guidotti was using his academic standing to provide scientific cover for DC WASA. At the time, a university dean met with Guidotti to discuss these concerns and to warn him that she did not want to see his actions lead to bad press for the university. Then Elizabeth Pelcyger, a concerned Washington parent, raised similar issues: “I am writing as a DC resident and parent concerned about exceedingly high levels of lead in our local water supply, WASA's response to this public health crisis, and particularly GW professor Tee Guidotti's role as a simultaneous consultant for WASA and tenured member of the GW School of Public Health,” wrote Pelcyger in an e-mail to then-dean Ruth Katz. Speaking about her motivation for contacting the dean, Pelcyger says, “I was incensed by Dr. Guidotti’s behavior. “I just couldn't believe that a public health professional could front for WASA like this,” she says. Katz defended Guidotti, writing that the group’s work was in accordance with scholarly standards, professional ethics, and the principles of academic freedom. My continuing efforts to contact Guidotti have failed. In July 2008, he announced that he was taking early retirement and leaving GWU. He is currently in Saudi Arabia. My efforts to contact GWU officials about these matters have also failed. “How could GWU officials sign off on this contract, which clearly violates their own policy?” asks Krimsky. “It would appear that GWU has a code of ethics that gives the appearance of virtue. But the university does not always enforce its own code. This is not an enviable situation.”

Author: Rebecca Renner

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  1. My apologies — there is a sentence missing from my post. If you are wondering, who is Pelcyger, she is Elizabeth Pelcyger a concerned parent who lives in D.C. In February 2008 she sent the e-mail quoted above that starts, “I am writing….”.

  2. What keeps getting skipped over in all this, is that the problem was caused by chloramine being used as a water disinfectant. Chloramine leaches lead from water pipes and brass fittings. In addition, it can cause skin rashes, as well as digestive and respiratory problems. Please see http://www.chloramine.org for more information. The District of Columbia still uses chloramine. Is lead still present in the water? Good question.