Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bad Science, Conflicts of Interest, and Misuse of Professional Authority: A "Crash Course"

This week the independent radio program "Living on Earth" is airing a 7-minute interview with Dr. Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, about lead in the District's drinking water. Dr. Edwards, an internationally renowned water corrosion expert and 2007 MacArthur Fellow, is the first author of a new peer-reviewed study revealing that DC's 2001-2004 lead-in-water crisis caused elevated blood lead levels in hundreds, if not thousands, of infants and toddlers.

Dr. Edwards has stated in numerous presentations that his study does not prove the harmful effects of leaded drinking water. These effects were established decades ago. Indeed, in 2004, Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins University testified in Congress that the ability of lead in water alone to cause toxicity, especially in infants, was established in the 1960s (several key studies confirming this finding came out afterwards as well).

The Edwards et al. 2009 study merely confirms prior scientific knowledge. It also reveals the serious flaws of the two government-sponsored papers -- published in 2004 and 2007 -- claiming that "no harm" was done from the unprecedented contamination. For the last 5 years, these two studies have been used repeatedly both in DC and internationally to downplay contaminated drinking water as an important source of exposure to lead. The first study was authored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the DC Department of Health (DOH), and the second, by George Washington University (GWU) and DOH.

If you are wondering about the role of DOH in the 2001-2004 debacle, here's some quick background:

DOH learned about the lead-in-water contamination in October 2002, when WASA approached them with an urgent request for assistance. An independent report later revealed that WASA's calls for help "were met with slow response time from DOH or were not met with any response at all." In February 2004, two weeks after the Washington Post broke the story about excessively high levels of lead in our water, DOH sought the help of CDC to "assess" potential health effects from the contamination. Here's what's key about this partnership: Dr. Lynette Stokes, co-author of the ensuing CDC/DOH report that claimed that no harm was done, oversaw the DOH lead screening program at the time, but was also a former employee of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) -- an agency under the aegis of CDC (for more on Dr. Stokes, see our 1/31/09 blog "5 Year Anniversary").

Almost immediately after she called for CDC's assistance, Dr. Stokes announced on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show that:

"We've found that 34 children have elevated blood lead levels amongst those screened, and we wanted to make sure that we tried to identify all sources of lead. [...] When we did the environmental assessments we determined that every child had a [lead] dust or a soil level that exceeded EPA or HUD guidelines."

This claim, that every child with elevated blood lead levels in the first half of 2004 lived in a home with a non-water lead hazard (and the implication that this hazard was the primary cause of the elevated blood lead levels), was repeated consistently -- even in official documents to the US Senate and the DC Office of the Inspector General -- by government officials and their expert consultants for the next four years. GWU and DOH included a version of it in their 2007 study, and WASA featured it in their public education factsheet even as late as 2008 (see point 7 on the factsheet).

Research by Dr. Edwards, however, revealed that in actuality many of these environmental assessments at the homes of children with elevated blood lead levels pointed to drinking water as the sole or contributing source of exposure to lead. Dr. Edwards talks about both the CDC/DOH study and the GWU/DOH study in this week's "Living on Earth." We contacted him with three follow-up questions.

Here are his answers:

PNA: In the interview with "Living on Earth" you said that you "went to the CDC, asked them for details about their study, and they refused to give [you] any." Can you say more about this? What kind of information did you ask for? Was it proprietary? Is it within a federal agency's legal right to not share information about a study with the public? Do you have any thoughts as to why they didn't give you the information you asked for?

Dr. Edwards: We initially asked for very basic information about how/when their paper was published, how the data was collected, whose blood lead was tested -- the simple information that scientists are supposed to freely share to defend the validity of their work. For the first time in my career, the scientists of a paper would not answer a single question that I posed. I later figured out why they would not answer my questions. The Freedom of Information Act requests revealed their "study" was not at all what it was presented to be. I believe that the people involved in the CDC MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] are guilty of gross misconduct. These authors refused to correct the scientific record, which was being twisted to suggest that drinking water with even 300 parts per billion lead (20 times the federal limit of 15 parts per billion) would not harm anyone. Someone would have to ask them why they refused to answer my questions or to correct the record.

PNA: What has CDC said about your finding that DC residents' blood lead levels were tested long after they knew not to consume the lead-contaminated water? Have they accepted it as a fact, or are they disputing your claim?

Dr. Edwards: They have flatly refused to answer any questions that I have posed about their work. They admitted to freelance reporter Rebecca Renner a few years ago that I was correct about the months to a year gap between the time residents were told of the high lead in water and the time their blood lead was tested. By the way, their refusal to answer questions and to defend their work is also completely contrary to written CDC policy regarding publications in MMWR. But as far as I can tell, following their own written guidelines does not seem to concern those at CDC who are working on this issue. A few hours after my own work was published, lead author Mary Jean Brown admitted to the Washington Post that the CDC MMWR was "clearly" not scientific. I agree with that statement. First and foremost, the CDC MMWR has been a public relations coup for DC WASA. I don't know why CDC is in the business of publishing work that is "clearly" not scientific, or why they would sit by while DC WASA continued to mis-represent what happened.

PNA: You said that "the data that was presented to the public, much of it was just completely fabricated." Can you say more about this? What are some of the key fabricated data we should know about?

Dr. Edwards: Fabrication involves "making up data out of thin air," as well as knowingly presenting data as if it is something that it is not. Failure to disclose the months to a year that DC residents in the "300 parts per billion" study were not drinking water, and telling everyone in DC that those who were tested represented the "worst case," is an example of fabrication. There was another study of "65 children" who supposedly had elevated blood lead, and whose homes were tested by DC DOH, and it was claimed by DC WASA that "in every case" they found lead paint and lead dust over federal standards. This was even cited to the US Senate in written testimony by DC WASA's General Manager Jerry Johnson. The fact of the matter is that this "study" never existed. The data were made up of thin air. There are many more examples, but I do not have time to discuss them all.

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