Correction to This Article
This article about a study of lead levels in the District's water incorrectly identified Johnnie Hemphill as communications director for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. He previously held that job but is now WASA's chief of staff.

Agency's Role Probed in D.C. Water Report

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

A 2007 research paper that assured District residents they had not been harmed by lead in their water is under investigation because of concerns that the chief author gave the city's water authority final approval of the paper.

Editors at the National Institutes of Health journal also discovered last week that the central conclusion of the paper had been published by mistake. It reported that there had been no health impact from the unprecedented concentrations of lead in the city's water from 2001 to 2004.

Experts reviewing the George Washington University paper before publication had rejected that finding as scientifically dubious, and the author had said he would delete it, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Washington Post.

Editors at the Environmental Health Perspectives journal said author Tee Guidotti, who was a paid consultant for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and until recently a department chairman in GWU's school of public health, did not disclose a contract that appears to require that he get WASA's approval in writing before publishing information about the utility. By policy, the journal refuses to consider research that is not free from the control of a paying sponsor. It is the first time in the journal's 30-year history that it has conducted such a review, editors said, which could lead to a retraction of the paper.

When it was published, the paper was cited locally and across the country as reliable evidence that the city's water hadn't harmed residents. This review is the second time in recent weeks that those reassurances have been questioned. A study published recently in the Environmental Science & Technology journal by another group of researchers found that lead had spiked to harmful levels in the blood of hundreds of D.C. children and that thousands more children could have been harmed.

Guidotti said that he did not view the contract as giving WASA preapproval and so did not need to disclose it and that WASA did not try to influence the findings. He said that the paper went through a final review by the journal before it was published and that he doesn't remember any problem with his conclusory sentence.

"I'm kind of shocked," said James Burkhart, who was then the editor of Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The sentence in question, he said, "was a major sticking point that we said had to come out. . . . That it ended up back in the paper is very disturbing."

It is unclear how the sentence, which Burkhart and scientists reviewing the paper had insisted be deleted as a condition of publication, made it into the journal's final printing. Guidotti had wanted to include the sentence, his e-mails show.

Guidotti, who is no longer department chairman and is in Saudi Arabia, said he did not recall a disagreement with Burkhart on the sentence. He said his final draft "had to go through their process to be finally accepted and printed."

"We did not circumvent the process," he said. "I will take up the matter of this sentence directly with EHP."

Editors at Environmental Health Perspectives said that they were embarrassed that the controversial conclusion had been published and that they rely somewhat on authors to follow through on agreed changes. But they said they are more concerned about evidence that Guidotti had not disclosed his agreement giving WASA the right to approve his paper. They said they will ask the journal's board at its March meeting to reevaluate the paper and make a decision about whether it should be retracted, corrected or allowed to stand.

"If this is true, it's very troublesome," said Hugh Tilson, the journal's editor. "That is absolutely something they needed to disclose, and they did not. If we had known [of external control], the work would not have been published."

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