By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009; A01
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."
Guidotti said this week that his understanding was that WASA wanted to review the paper for proprietary information only. He said he would have preferred to clarify the contract, but the university medical school's research office negotiated the contract. He referred questions about the terms to that office.
"At no time did WASA ask for changes in the paper or attempt to influence the content," Guidotti said.
University officials said they take the journal's concerns seriously, but declined to answer questions about the contract terms.
The 2005 WASA agreement with Guidotti used broad language. "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 by WASA in writing," the contract states.
"What it looks like to me is that somebody wanted to review data before it was published," Tilson said. "That's a problem."
Johnnie Hemphill, WASA communications director, said he never interpreted the contract at the time as giving WASA approval of the data or analysis. WASA Chairman William Walker said that he wasn't in charge at the time but that it was Guidotti's responsibility to disclose to the journal the terms of his relationship with WASA.
"If there are any concerns as to the veracity in Dr. Guidotti's study, the WASA board takes those questions and concerns very seriously and will ask the proper questions as we review all of this research that has been done," Walker said.
WASA hired Guidotti as a science adviser in early 2004 amid an outcry that the utility had failed to alert the public to a significant health threat from lead concentrations that had been rising in city drinking water since 2000. Elevated lead exposure has been linked to brain damage and developmental delays in children.
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.
Experts reviewing Guidotti's paper had problems with his conclusion, according to Burkhart's e-mails. Two of the three reviewers criticized it as too broad and said they found it unlikely that the highest lead levels ever recorded in tap water nationwide had no impact on health.
When Burkhart said he had to reject the paper based on their reactions, Guidotti offered to make revisions and, in an August 2006 e-mail, agreed to remove the problematic "key sentence."
He said he would replace the sentence "There appears to have been no identifiable public health impact from the elevation of lead in drinking water" with another statement: "Measures to protect residents from exposure to lead in drinking water may have prevented more frequent elevations in blood lead."
In a September 2006 e-mail to GWU colleague and co-author Marina Moses, he wrote: "Unless this is resolved, there will always be a cloud and confusion over what happened to DC residents." If their paper was not published by a peer-reviewed journal, he wrote, "the lawyers will use this in future legal actions" and "WASA will be vulnerable forever." Moses did not return calls requesting comment.
Guidotti said in an interview that he simply wanted to get accurate information into the hands of the public.
EHP learned about publication of the controversial conclusion from The Post, which obtained e-mails showing Guidotti's promise to take out the sentence. The documents came from several sources, but most were provided by Virginia Tech water researcher Marc Edwards, who filed a public records request with the journal and government agencies. "The central conclusion of this work is wrong," Edwards said. "It's a highly skewed analysis that changes an embarrassing incident and bungling by these agencies . . . into a model public health response, to the point there is no resemblance to reality."
News researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.