What Would George Say–Academic Or Advocate?
Feb13

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...

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Lead In D.C.’s Drinking Water
Jan27

Lead In D.C.’s Drinking Water

From 2001 to 2004, tens of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., unknowingly drank tap water that contained lead. The “D.C. lead-in-water crisis” was one of the most serious episodes of heavy-metal contamination of drinking water in modern U.S. history. Although officials working for D.C.’s water utility, the Washington Area Sewer Authority (WASA), the D.C. Department of Health (DC DOH), and the U.S. EPA knew about the problem, the public was in the dark. The contamination persisted for three years before the Washington Post informed D.C. residents about the situation in a story published in 2004. The news outraged parents who were worried about their children’s health, angered politicians who hadn’t been told, and created anxiety among public-health experts who initially feared a community-wide crisis. Children’s health was the focus of concern because lead’s effects on neurodevelopment are notorious—low levels of exposure can cause a long list of problems that include hyperactivity, decreased learning ability, and trouble paying attention. In the aftermath of the crisis, public-health experts, including scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, examined blood lead data collected by DC DOH and water lead data collected by WASA and concluded that there had been little if any harm to the public. This “no harm” conclusion defied previous studies that showed that drinking water contaminated with high levels of lead can markedly raise children’s blood lead levels, and the results were very influential. But a study published today in Environmental Science & Technology (DOI: 10.1021/es802789w) reveals that hundreds of babies and toddlers in D.C. were affected by the contamination from 2001 to 2003. In babies under 16 months of age living all over the city, the contaminated tap water caused the incidence of elevated blood lead levels to increase by more than 400%. For toddlers, the substantial increases were largely confined to certain neighborhoods, where an unlucky combination of lead water pipes and highly contaminated tap water created the conditions for higher exposure. In these high-risk neighborhoods, the incidence of high blood lead levels among toddlers more than doubled in 2001 and remained high until 2004. “This new paper is important and very persuasive,” says Harvard Medical School pediatrician Michael Shannon, an expert in children’s lead exposure. “This is the first paper about the D.C. lead crisis to get it right. The authors really show quite convincingly that the lead in the drinking water resulted in lead poisoning in some children.” The paper’s coauthors, Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards and Children’s National Medical Center pediatrician Dana Best, set out to determine the impact of the D.C. lead crisis by looking at the most vulnerable...

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