Group Seeks Independent Investigation Of District Water Agency's Actions On Lead Poisoning
Washington, D.C., Feb 13, 2009--A leading national environmental research organization is calling on the District of Columbia's City Council to launch an independent investigation of the D.C. Water And Sewer Authority's (WASA) misleading campaign to assure the public that no harm resulted from WASA actions that triggered high levels of lead pollution in the city’s drinking water between 2001 and 2004
"It is well established that elevated levels of lead in tap water can cause serious, long-term harm to children's brains," said Environmental Working Group (EWG) president Ken Cook. "Obviously, it also severely impaired the D.C. water agency's capacity to tell the truth about lead poisoning to the residents of the nation's capital."
EWG publishes the online National Tap Water Database and has conducted numerous studies of drinking water contaminants.
Stories in The Washington Post and other scientific studies have raised serious questions about WASA's public reassurances that high levels of lead in DC tap water from 2001 to 2004 resulted in no health impact to city residents, in particular children, who are most vulnerable to neurological damage from lead exposure.
In a front page story in the February 13 edition, Washington Post staff writer Carol D. Leonnig reported that a May 2007 research paper published in the federal government's highly regarded public health journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), that assured District residents they had not been harmed by lead in their water is under review.
Leonnig reported that the paper’s chief author -- Dr. Tee l. Guidotti, then department chairman in the George Washington University school of public health and also a paid consultant to WASA – did not disclose to the journal editors that his contract with WASA appeared to give the city's water authority final approval of the study.
Leonnig wrote that “as part of his contract with WASA, which paid the professor and his university more than $750,000 over the next three years, Guidotti worked on publishing a peer-reviewed paper that would review data from water tests and blood samples collected by the D.C. Department of Health in a research study partially funded by WASA. He disclosed this funding from WASA to the journal in his publication.”
However, Leonnig wrote, Guidotti did not tell his editors that WASA had the right to final review of his work. The journal, like other respected academic publications, has a policy of declining to publish any paper whose content is subject to editorial control by a paying sponsor. If the editorial review finds that Guidotti had given WASA a say in the paper’s conclusion, it could be retracted.
Leonnig also reported that journal editors had tried but failed to strike a key conclusion reassuring Washingtonians about their drinking water. Experts who reviewed the paper disputed the credibility of the paper’s assertion that “there appears to have been no identiﬁable public health impact from the elevation of lead in drinking water in Washington, D.C. in 2003 and 2004.”
According to the Washington Post, then EHP editor James Burkhart recalled that this sentence "was a major sticking point that we said had to come out. . . . That it ended up back in the paper is very disturbing."
In sharp contrast to Guidotti’s conclusion, a study published Jan. 27 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, by a research team led by Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, reported that the number of babies and toddlers with elevated lead levels in their blood increased more than 400 percent between 2001 and 2004 period. The study, based on blood tests of more than 28,000 children seen at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, was the first to draw a strong correlation between the city's water contamination and elevated lead blood levels in young children from the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
In light of these contradictory reports, and suggestions that WASA may have exerted improper influence over a study that served its ends, Cook has called for a high-level review of the utility’s handling of the D.C.'s lead contamination crisis.
The crisis has been traced to a WASA decision in 2000 to change disinfectants from free chlorine to chloramines, a stronger chemical that caused lead to flake from older pipes. Lead levels in D.C. water began rising in 2001 but received little publicity until the extent of the problem was reported in an January 2004 article in The Washington Post.