Researchers Quit, Charge Agency ‘Watered Down’ Report on Lead

By Ellen Flax — June 24, 1987 5 min read

WASHINGTON--Officials of the U.S. Public Health Service said last week that they were revising a controversial report that outlines the effects of lead on children, following charges that the document “waters down’’ the findings of two experts.

The study, which was mandated by the Congress last year as part of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, concluded that as many as 2.4 million urban preschool children have lead levels associated with developmental problems.

The controversy erupted following the resignation of the study’s two authors on June 4. They charged that an agency of the Public Health Service that had hired them to write the study had “watered down’’ their findings and deleted some of their recommendations.

The report was condensed to 46 pages, from nearly 400 pages submitted by the authors.

The researchers found that lead exposure and intoxication among children were far more pervasive than originally thought, and that physical damage from lead could occur at blood levels much lower than those normally considered dangerous.

And, because fetuses can be affected by even minimal exposure to lead, it poses a special threat to women of child-bearing age, the authors concluded.

A report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency last year noted that potentially dangerous levels of lead in the water supply represent a “double whammy’’ for schools.

Children who have been exposed to high levels of lead have a greater likelihood of developing learning disabilities and various physical ailments, the E.P.A. said, and high levels of lead have been found in the water supplies of some schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 19, 1986.)

Recommendations Diluted

Annemarie F. Crocetti, one of the authors of the Public Health Service report and a retired professor of community and preventive medicine at New York Medical College, said the original version stressed the potential threat posed by lead to at least 17 percent of the nation’s preschool-age children, those with at least 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

Currently, the federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that children with more than 25 micrograms be screened and tested for possible ill effects.

While the agency’s edited version mentioned the 17 percent figure, Dr. Crocetti said, “by the time the thing was rewritten, it doesn’t look like much of a problem.’'

“People keep thinking of it as a black, ghetto problem,’' she added, noting that most testing for lead exposure has been conducted in inner-city neighborhoods.

Not ‘Very Effective’

But the problem extends throughout the population, she said. “You can’t assume that white, middle-class children are safe.’'

Dr. Crocetti charged that the report was edited to play down recommendations that the federal government devote more resources toward a coordinated effort against lead-related problems.

She characterized the current federal effort on the matter, which splits responsibility among several separate agencies, as not being “a very effective, efficient way of looking at something that physiologically demands a total approach.’'

She also said that the edited report did not include some of the socioeconomic observations made in the original draft.
For instance, she said, the original version noted that children affected by exposure to lead tended to live in the country’s oldest housing--which often has lead pipes and lead paint--and speculated that many young families did not have the financial resources to move into better accommodations. The edited version, she said, omitted this point.

Congress May Investigate

The agency’s handling of the study may also be the subject of a Congressional probe. In letter dated June 12, a key House subcommittee asked the Public Health Service’s agency for toxic substances and disease registry, which hired the researchers, to send copies of both the original report and the edited version to the panel.

“Allegations that a Congressionally mandated scientific report on an important public-health issue has been substantially modified to weaken the report are extremely serious and disturbing,’' the letter from the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations states.

Barry Johnson, the associate administrator of the agency, said the report was edited to make it more readable.

He added that the agency had already complied with the subcommittee’s request for copies of both the original and the disputed versions.

Mr. Johnson said a third version, now being prepared, could contain stronger language than the shortened draft. He said a panel of federal experts on lead was reviewing the edited draft and would make suggestions for changes in the report’s final version.

“Some of the federal panelists are saying some of the same things as the consultants,’' he acknowledged.

New E.P.A. Program

In a related development, the E.P.A. is developing a program to warn education and health officials about the danger of lead in school water supplies.

The yearlong pilot project, which will start this July in Boston and will be expanded nationwide next year, will attempt to determine the extent of the problem in schools and inform policymakers in education about steps they can take to reduce lead levels.

Educators will be encouraged to work with state health officials and water suppliers to solve the problems.

High levels of lead rarely come from the water supplier, according to health officials. Rather, water is contaminated as it passes through pipes made of or soldered with lead. It becomes even more contaminated if it sits in such pipes for long periods of time, officials warn.

School water supplies may be especially vulnerable, because many older buildings contain pipes with high concentrations of lead. And because schools are closed on the weekends and for vacations, water tends to sit unused in lead pipes for long periods of time.

Center Location

Peter Lassovszky, an environmental engineer in the E.P.A.'s office of drinking water, said the federal agency chose to center its project in New England because the region has corrosive water, which generally produces higher levels of lead.

He said it was important for schools to take water samples to determine the water’s lead content. Federal law mandates that no more than 50 parts per billion can be present, and officials have proposed tightening the standard to 20 parts per billion.

“When you’re talking about children, a year’s exposure could have an effect on their development,’' Mr. Lassovszky said. “Once the damage is done, a lot of the lead is retained.’'

He said the E.P.A. has prepared a pamphlet to provide educators with more information about the health hazards caused by lead in the water supply.

Free copies of “Lead and Your Drinking Water’’ can be obtained by writing the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Drinking Water, 401 M Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20460, or by calling (202) 382-5533.

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1987 edition of Education Week as Researchers Quit, Charge Agency ‘Watered Down’ Report on Lead