By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009; B01
Two D.C. Council members want the city's inspector general to probe the validity of a 2007 research paper that concluded that public health was not harmed several years ago by high concentrations of lead in drinking water.
The paper's author, Tee Guidotti, was a paid consultant for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and had a contract stating that the utility had final approval on anything published about it.
Editors of the National Institutes of Health journal that published the paper say they were unaware of the contract's stipulations. They also say Guidotti failed to change a critical sentence in the paper, as he was told, that read: "There appears to have been no identifiable public health impact from the elevation of lead in drinking water." Experts who reviewed the paper before publication rejected the finding.
Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who held a joint public hearing on water quality this week, expressed outrage at the latest twist in an almost eight-year ordeal that began in 2001 when dangerous concentrations of lead were found to be leaking into drinking water.
Yesterday, The Washington Post published an article revealing the mistaken conclusion and potential conflicts in the research, which editors at the NIH journal are considering retracting.
The paper's assurance that drinking water was safe "was used over and over and over again," Graham said. "Now, to find out that such was not the case really calls into question the safety of the drinking water. . . . We're going to get to the bottom of this."
"There ought to be consequences," Cheh said. "If people are responsible for this . . . they ought to resign."
The two council members had already asked the inspector general to investigate whether WASA and public health agencies "negligently or intentionally" misled the public during the crisis.
Their Jan. 27 request followed a Post article on a study that found a correlation between elevated blood-lead levels in children and neighborhoods that had high lead levels in drinking water during the city's water crisis. Hundreds of D.C. children had harmful levels of lead in their blood, and thousands more may have been exposed to the danger, according to the study.
Attorney General Peter Nickles said the lead case continues to be an unraveling "mystery" and that he agrees with the call for further investigation.
"I certainly support an independent study by competent people," he said.
But Nickles warned against panic because officials have found the drinking water to be safe, although precautions, such as filters, are advised for infants, seniors and those with weak immune systems. Water treatment now minimizes the corrosion of lead service pipes.
"I don't have the impression that the sky is falling," Nickles said.
Guidotti, who was a department chairman at George Washington University's school of public health when he wrote the paper, has said WASA did not influence his findings, and he does not remember conversations about removing the key sentence. The Post obtained an August 2006 e-mail in which Guidotti agreed to change the sentence to: "Measures to protect residents from exposure to lead in drinking water may have prevented more frequent elevations in blood lead."
A WASA spokesman said the utility did not interpret the contract as giving WASA final approval on the paper.
Environmental activists, however, say the latest worries of the NIH editors raise doubts about WASA's candor and whether the city's drinking water is a threat.
"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 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."
Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, a grass-roots group, said WASA should correct and rewrite any materials about the safety of the water.
"We feel profoundly betrayed by the very people trusted to protect our children's health," she said. "Our trust in the system has completely evaporated."
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.