Professor under fire for water study

Editor’s note (Aug. 21, 2009)

A June 2009 report from The Washington Post said that an investigation into the matter showed Guidotti did not intentionally try to deceive NIH journal readers. The sentence “There appears to have been no identifiable public health impact from the elevation of lead in drinking water in Washington DC in 2003 and 2004.” was included by mistake, according to the Post. In addition, the Post reported that Guidotti was not a paid consultant of WASA, and the investigation found WASA had no oversight over the study’s findings.

A prominent professor in the GW School of Public Health and Health Sciences is under scrutiny this week because of allegations that he knowingly misled people about the safety of the District’s water while under contract with the city’s main water utility.

Tee Guidotti, a former professor and department chairman at SPHHS, published an article in the National Institute of Health journal in 2007 that said the extraordinarily high lead content in the D.C. water supply from 2001 to 2004 was not harmful, a statement cited locally and nationally as evidence that the city’s water supply was safe.

Last month, however, another study concluded that there is 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, The Washington Post reported. The study found that hundreds of D.C. children had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

After closer review, editors of the journal said Guidotti’s conclusions were questionable and that he may have been influenced to publish his conclusions by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, who contracted the study.

WASA paid Guidotti and GW $750,000 over a three-year period for his work on the study, according to The Washington Post.

On Friday the Post published a front-page story about the alleged conflict of interest, highlighting e-mails Guidotti sent to colleagues prior to the journal’s publication showing he knew a key portion of the article was inaccurate, though it was published anyway.

Despite allegations that his study was influenced by WASA, Guidotti maintains that his research and conclusions were accurate.

“The study we did was perfectly valid,” Guidotti wrote in an e-mail to The Hatchet from Saudi Arabia. “At the time we were working on our studies, the Department of Health, EPA and CDC were doing their own evaluations; we were not working in a vacuum.”

But editors at the journal said Guidotti failed to disclose the University-negotiated contract he had with WASA – which they said required the professor to obtain WASA’s approval before publishing information about WASA resulting from his study, the Post reported.

Guidotti said the $750,000 was not extra income, but rather payment for time missed at GW while working on the study.

Michele Quander-Collins, WASA director of public affairs, said there was nothing corrupt or irregular about the contract with GW and Guidotti.

Quander-Collins said the contract they signed in 2004 with GW was a standard “goods and services” contract with the goal of gaining information on the public health impact of lead in the tap water. She said they never asserted the right to approve the conclusions of Guidotti’s paper.

“The contract included provisions to protect WASA’s proprietary information,” Quander-Collins wrote in an e-mail. “But, at no time, did WASA interpret that as giving it the authority to influence academic research. In fact, the contract clearly requires the contractor’s services to be consistent with the tenets and standards of his or her profession.”

This is the first time in the journal’s 30-year history that such a review has been conducted and could lead to a retraction of the paper.

Guidotti said he took early retirement from GW effective July 1, 2008, and is phasing out his GW career over a year. He still has an appointment as a research professor but has mainly moved on to other work, he said. He is building a new career as a consultant for some international clients and said he wants to go back to practicing occupational and environmental medicine.

The Post reported on Saturday that D.C. Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Jim Graham have called on the District’s inspector general to investigate the “validity” of the paper.

University spokeswoman Tracy Schario said they are looking into the matter internally but do not comment on contractual matters.

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