Tuesday, June 16, 2009

WASA's Health Advisor to Apologize for "No Identifiable Harm" Claim in Study about DC's Lead-in-Water Crisis

Today's Washington Post focuses once again on the controversial 2007 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) titled "Elevated Lead in Drinking Water in Washington, DC, 2003-2004: The Public Health Response." The study erroneously concluded that the District's historically unprecedented lead-in-water contamination a few years ago had no identifiable public health impact.

In February of this year, questions were raised in the media about the principal author's financial and contractual ties to WASA, and whether he complied with EHP's conflict of interest disclosure requirements. Specifically, the contract between WASA and Tee L. Guidotti, MD, former department chair at the George Washington University School of Public Health and WASA's health advisor, stated that:
Publication or teaching of information specific to DCWASA, specifying DCWASA by name and directly derived from work performed or data obtained in connection with services under this Agreement, must first be approved in writing by DCWASA.
According to a review panel that was convened to investigate the matter, Dr. Guidotti was found not to have been constrained in what he wrote by WASA, and the panel concluded that Dr. Guidotti neither attempted to deceive readers nor to subvert the publication process. However, Dr. Guidotti agreed to issue an apology for, and correction of, his paper's "no identifiable harm" conclusion. This crucial and objectionable conclusion mysteriously managed to get printed despite the directive of EHP to remove it from the final draft.

"How many lawyers did it take to produce this whitewash?" asked a seasoned lead poisoning prevention advocate today when the subject of the panel's findings came up at a meeting about childhood lead poisoning in DC.

The question seems justified. Internal e-mails in our possession show that Dr. Guidotti was in regular communication with WASA about his manuscript. Moreover, the WASA/George Washington University contract paid $750,000 over 3 years (2004-2006), and remained active into 2009.

In our opinion, if one is paid handsomely to "advise" a utility about the health effects of lead-contaminated water that the utility delivered to the residents of a major city for an extended period of time without disclosing the problem, they really don't need to be told by their client what their public statements about health effects ought to be, or that they should do anything in their power to minimize their client's legal liability.

Dr. Guidotti reinserted into his manuscript for EHP the sentence, "There appears to have been no identifiable public health impact from the elevation of lead in drinking water in Washington, DC, in 2003 and 2004," after having removed it to satisfy reviewer criticisms and get the paper accepted for publication. This statement was highly favorable to Dr. Guidotti's client, WASA, which had been criticized severely for placing DC residents at risk of exposure to excessive levels of lead in drinking water for two and a half years during 2001-2004. In fact, the controversial sentence was virtually identical to words in a 2006 press release issued by WASA itself claiming that testing confirmed "no identifiable public health impact from elevated lead levels in drinking water" during the city's lead-at-the-tap crisis.

With or without conclusive evidence that WASA told Dr. Guidotti what to write, Dr. Guidotti published a statement about health effects that was not supported by facts and that helped exonerate his client.

We thank EHP for requesting an apology for and correction of the misleading statement from Dr. Guidotti, especially since Dr. Guidotti seemed intent on defending his paper's conclusions even as recently as a few months ago:
  • On 2/13/09, Dr. Guidotti told the Washington Post that he "did not recall a disagreement" with EHP on the controversial sentence.
  • On 2/17/09, Dr. Guidotti wrote a "To my colleagues" e-mail stating that his paper's conclusions were "agreed upon by the Department of Health, EPA, and CDC." That same day, George Washington University's Hatchet (the school's student newspaper) reported him saying that his paper's conclusions were "accurate."
  • On 2/20/09, Dr. Guidotti wrote to Washington City Paper that he stood by his paper's conclusions.
Clearly, these earlier statements seem to contradict the new claim that Dr. Guidotti's reinsertion of the "no identifiable harm" conclusion was inadvertent.

Thankfully, however, this latest development provides a fitting end to a harrowing public relations campaign by WASA, which tried to convince DC residents that our water's unprecedented contamination in 2001-2004 caused no significant health harm. Dr. Guidotti will no longer be able to repeat publicly the "no measurable impact" mantra, unchallenged.

We take the forthcoming apology and correction as a retraction of Dr. Guidotti's key conclusion from the scientific record, but how does one retract an erroneous, misleading, and falsely reassuring statement about health risk from the public sphere? Over the years, Dr. Guidotti's EHP paper was disseminated to many DC residents at WASA's community meetings, and Dr. Guidotti himself made numerous public presentations recapitulating his EHP paper's presumed main points (see, for example, the 2008 video clip below).

We consider EHP's intervention only a first step toward addressing the remaining -- and, unfortunately, even more serious -- questions about the scientific integrity of the oft-cited Guidotti et al. paper.

On February 25 of this year, Marc Edwards, PhD, environmental engineer and lead corrosion expert at Virginia Tech, told WASAwatch that the featured study in the EHP paper never existed (i.e., the 65 children who had elevated blood lead levels, whose homes were supposedly tested by the DC Department of Health and always contained significant sources of lead other than water). Dr. Edwards made the same statement on February 3 in a meeting that included one of Dr. Guidotti's EHP co-authors, who didn't refute it. For obvious reasons, it troubles us that Dr. Edwards' assertion may be correct.

We are aware that EHP has in its possession an 80+ page letter of concerns from Dr. Edwards regarding the scientific integrity of the controversial Guidotti et al. paper. We hope and trust that EHP will address these concerns with complete and cogent responses, in a timely fashion.

After two and a half years of exposure to excessively lead-contaminated drinking water, and another five years of misleading assurances about the health effects of this exposure, DC residents -- and the world community at large -- deserve to know unequivocally which of the published claims about the DC lead-in-water crisis are based on real and valid data.

Yanna Lambrinidou
Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives

Ralph Scott
Alliance for Healthy Homes

Paul Schwartz
Clean Water Action

Video clip: Dr. Guidotti talks to DC residents about lead at WASA's February 4, 2008 community meeting at the Old Naval Hospital in Capitol Hill. He asserts that the health impact of DC's lead-in-water crisis was studied extensively and, contradicting recent revelations of significant harm, that there was no evidence of a detectable health effect on DC's children. Echoing his EHP paper, he posits that:

a) Lead in drinking water is a minor source of exposure, without offering evidence that this is the case even when lead-in-water levels are as high as the levels in DC in 2001-2004, and without addressing the well-established vulnerability of infants dependent on formula and young children;

b) DC residents probably received an additional layer of protection from exposure to high lead in water due to WASA's flushing and filtering recommendations, without revealing that these recommendations were issued in 2004, after the media broke the story and many members of the public had already consumed contaminated tap water for two and a half years (the EHP paper erroneously states that WASA's flushing and filter-distribution program was launched in 2003).

This talk was attended by representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who expressed no objection to Dr. Guidotti's claims (for more information about the CDC's involvement in DC's lead-in-water fiasco see earlier WASAwatch blog entries).