‘Science fraud’ alleged in urban lead incident

The District of Columbia government manipulated data about the health impacts of lead contamination in local water supplies between 2001 and 2004. Federal agencies then colluded in downplaying any lead-poisoning risks to D.C. children by keeping quiet about what they knew. Or so charges Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, the lead author of a paper that details repercussions of the incident.

An unintended consequence of the DC Water and Sewer Authority‘s 2001 decision to switch from chlorination to an alternative water-disinfection technology — chloramination —was the sudden release of large amounts of lead from plumbing (pipes, solder and faucets) into drinking water.

It made no sense that children’s blood-lead concentrations wouldn’t rise if waterborne lead concentrations spiked. Yet that’s what District officials reported finding in 2004.

So Edwards, a plumbing engineer, and some colleagues requested to see the data that local health and water authorities had analyzed. Edwards also requested data and any correspondence about the issue from federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency. (EPA oversees DC’s water quality because there is no state agency to provide its own rules or guidance.)

In the end, Edwards says, “We couldn’t get answers.” So his team submitted at least 30 Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests to District and federal agencies again asking to see the lead data and any correspondence pertaining to it.

Under FOIA law, a response should have been forthcoming in 30 days. But the researchers have yet to get their hands on the data they sought — which, in some cases, was requested almost four years ago. And that is even after formally appealing the unresponsiveness of these agencies.

Not accepting the District’s conclusion that blood-lead concentrations in children were unaffected by a three-year spike in waterborne lead, Edwards and two colleagues from Children’s National Medical Center did their own thorough probe. Yesterday, a paper detailing their findings showed that blood-lead values in the District’s youngest residents — babies and toddlers — indeed spiked within neighborhoods where drinking-water-lead values had risen most precipitously.

For any organization not to have witnessed the trend reported in the new paper, there must have been “either an intentional attempt to minimize the extent of the problem — or [scientific] ignorance,” contends Bruce Lanphear, a pediatric epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, who has extensively studied lead impacts in children.

But it wasn’t ignorance, Edwards asserts. “I know, absolutely, scientific fraud occurred.” Edwards leveled the charge yesterday following a briefing to reporters in Washington, D.C.

“Within a few months of a Washington Post article that came out in 2004, the [District] health department claimed it looked and looked and looked and couldn’t find any evidence of children being harmed” by drinking lead-tainted water for three years, says Edwards.

For studies by the District’s health department, the local water utility, and those that each organization had funded to all have missed evidence of a blood-lead spike in local children is prima facie evidence “that there is fraud involved,” Edwards claims. “It simply defies decades of research that proves unambiguously that high lead in water can harm children.”

And the water tainting was in some instances dramatic. Although EPA has an “action level” for lead in residential drinking water of 15 parts per billion, “in some cases hazardous-waste levels of lead were coming out of people’s taps; we’re talking in some homes of 5,000 ppb lead in the drinking water,” Edwards says.

By law, if lead values posed a health risk, the water authority was supposed to have informed the public. EPA’s lead and copper rule spells out the wording and precise actions that should be taken, provisions that Edwards notes “were not followed by the water utility.”

If they had been, affected families might then have been able to install lead-cleanup systems or switch to bottled water for cooking and drinking. As it is, Edwards says, since at least 2002 “EPA has admitted it knew about much of what was going on” (as detailed in Washington Post stories in 2004 and a major utility-financed analysis of the chloramination repercussions known as the Holder report).

The new data and Edwards’ charges will, I predict, cause heads to roll. President Obama has promised “transparency” and science-driven action. For District agencies to have played fast and loose with data on an IQ-lowering poison such as lead — and on EPA’s watch — should trouble lawmakers on Capital Hill (many of whom live in the District and drink its water).

Interestingly, there’s some evidence already that change may be on the way.

Edwards received a letter dated Jan. 21 — the day after Barack Obama was sworn in — from the CDC’s FOIA office. It said that a review of filings by its new staff turned up Edwards’ appeal of the denial of data on the District’s lead situation two and a half years earlier. The letter asked if he was still interested in the office reviewing his case.

Edwards jumped to the phone and immediately called the office. “And I almost fell out of my chair,” he says, because someone not only answered the phone” — a total novelty — but promised him “We’ll get on this.’”

Wow. I guess at least some bureaucrats are willing to embrace Obama’s call for change — and his Jan. 21 executive order stating, among other things, that: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption . . . in favor of disclosure.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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