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CDC's botched handling of 2004 District lead scare reveals toxic bureaucracy

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B01

Here's the good news about the District's lead-in-the-water crisis that erupted in 2004: Nobody died. There's no proof that children suffered serious health damage. Tests show the water has been consistently safe since 2006.

Now here's the bad news, highlighted by a congressional report released last week: The number of D.C. children whose blood tests showed they definitely suffered lead poisoning at the time was 949, instead of 315, as reported previously. It's now beyond doubt that many of those kids were poisoned by the water, not paint, dust or another source.

It might seem obvious in retrospect that the lead in the water was the problem. But that's not what authorities said at the time, and there's a simple reason. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched the analysis of what happened. It said that no children suffered dangerously elevated lead levels because of the water and instead blamed the issue on paint or other hazards.

Today, the troubling history of that error and its aftermath is the worst news of all. It points to the disturbing conclusion that the CDC, the nation's premier public health agency, put its own bureaucratic reputation ahead of the need to ensure that the nation was benefiting from the best possible scientific research. The agency only grudgingly conceded missteps, and it still hasn't made a full confession.

In addition, a six-year battle between the CDC and its critics over the issue has revealed a worrisome conflict of interest in the national community of experts and advocates who work on lead issues.

Many of the nonprofit groups responsible for safeguarding people against lead poisoning rely on the CDC for much of their funding. When the CDC puts out the word that the lead problem is in paint, not water, it's risky to say otherwise. One Washington-based lead expert said he was told he did not get a job this year with a nonprofit housing organization in part because his advocacy work didn't sit well with the CDC.

We might never know how many young people were harmed by the lead exposure, which reduces IQ. Some experts predicted last year that the overall public health consequences for the District's children would be slight, but that was before it was established that three times more children had been poisoned than previously thought.

For some parents, the biggest problem was the way the situation was handled.

Elena Vinogradova was "terrified" when she first learned of the danger. Her son Larion was a year old at the time, and blood tests found that his lead levels were dangerously elevated. The family immediately stopped giving him tap water, and the lead was gone when he was retested eight months later.

Elena's not sure whether her son suffered any damage. "He's a bright kid. Maybe he would have been brighter. How do you know?" Vinogradova said. But, she said, "the lying and secrecy were outrageous."

The CDC says its critics have misunderstood what the agency said in 2004. But consider the following:

-- A key part of the CDC's 2004 study overlooked a major research flaw. A survey found that no children had dangerously elevated lead levels, even in homes with the most lead in the water. But the CDC had data showing that most of the children tested had already switched to bottled or filtered water. Three co-authors expressed concern about that shortcoming before the study was released, according to the report released last week by the House science investigations subcommittee.

-- Some CDC officials were aware in 2004 that another part of the study was based on incomplete data. Thousands of blood test results from 2002 and 2003 were missing.

-- In 2007, the CDC responded to growing criticism of the 2004 study only by issuing a statement accusing "some reports" of misinterpreting it.

-- The CDC backtracked a bit after its main critic, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, published a paper early last year contradicting the agency's conclusions. The CDC's top lead-poisoning prevention official, Mary Jean Brown, told the District that new data indicated that the risk of lead poisoning was about four times higher for homes that had partially replaced lead service lines.

The CDC didn't retract the 2004 study, though. Also, Brown was telling anti-lead experts and advocates at the time that she was unhappy about the criticism that the CDC was getting.

One apparent victim was Ralph Scott, a longtime lead activist with the Alliance for Healthy Homes. When the alliance merged with the National Center for Healthy Housing early this year, Scott was not invited to make the move. Scott, who is still looking for a full-time job, said he was told directly that one reason, although not the only one, was that he "would be a liability because of CDC's displeasure with my advocacy on this issue."

The center receives most of its funding from federal contracts administered by the CDC. Its executive director, Rebecca Morley, denied Scott's account.

"Even if Ralph was told that, it wasn't an accurate portrayal of the situation," Morley said. However, another source familiar with the events who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said the CDC's attitude played a role in the decision.

Morley said it is time to stop pointing fingers, but I disagree. The nation should ask more of its scientists. The CDC needs to thoroughly air its mistakes and spell out how it'll ensure they don't happen again.

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