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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lead Committee

Air Date: Week of November 1, 2002

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The makeup of a CDC advisory panel on childhood lead poisoning has come under fire. Critics say the Bush administration has nominated people with a conflict of interest in the outcome of the committee’s decisions. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Before the federal government revises or establishes a new public health or science policy, experts will often weigh in on the issue, assessing the current data and recommending changes.

That was the case eleven years ago when the issue was children’s lead poisoning. At that time, a panel assembled by the Centers for Disease Control recommended lowering the acceptable limit of lead found in a child’s blood. Now as the CDC moves to examine the question of whether that blood level standard should be lowered again, the makeup of the current panel is coming under fire. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: In the past, when terms of committee members were about to expire, the Centers for Disease Control would submit a list of nominees to its parent organization, the Department of Health and Human Services. And then those names were rubber stamped by HHS. But recently that wasn’t the case when three of six nominees were rejected.

LANPHEAR: I was called by a colleague at CDC who essentially said that Tommy Thompson’s office had not approved our nomination, and instead had put forward their own names.

TOOMEY: Bruce Lanphear’s nomination was one of those rejected by HHS, headed up by Secretary Tommy Thompson. Dr. Lanphear is a leading lead researcher who has done work on the effects of low concentrations of lead on such things as children’s math and reading ability. Dr. Lanphear says the new makeup of the committee moves it away from its primary mission of protecting children’s health.

LANPHEAR: Historically, the nominees and the members of this committee have always had expertise in childhood lead exposure; whether that has to do with treatment, or management, or control. This is clearly a shift away from that.

TOOMEY: One of the administration’s nominees was a toxicologist with a corporate consulting firm whose clients include a company involved in a lead Superfund dispute, and DuPont, a defendant in the Rhode Island law suit. She has since pulled her name of out of the running.

Dr. Lanphear suspects his nomination was rejected because he believes that lead concentrations below the current CDC minimum level of concern cause neurological problems. It’s an issue about to be analyzed by the advisory committee. The outcome of that debate will have financial implications for industries, for example, that are held liable for lead Superfund sites. Dr. Lanphear and other critics, including some Democratic members of Congress, say the lead industry presented HHS with a so-called “wish list”’ The Department of Health and Human Services declined a taped interview, but a spokesperson said their nominees are all well-qualified and chosen in order to obtain a spectrum of viewpoints, as well as ethnic and gender diversity.

Another nomination that has generated criticism is that of pediatrician and toxicologist William Banner. He’s the medical director at the Children’s Hospital at St. Francis in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has been criticized for his role in the Rhode Island lead lawsuit. He gave a deposition in that case which was paid for by the paint manufacturers that were the defendants. Dr. Banner testified that studies have not proven that lead concentrations at or above the current minimum level of concern cause learning disabilities or declines in intelligence.

BANNER: There are studies that find statistical interactions, and there are ones that do not. And even now, I think when you look at the difference in these studies, it’s whether there is zero percent effect, or something like three percent of the variance. I think that we need to put that into a public health perspective.

TOOMEY: Dr. Banner says his deposition payment amounted to a tiny fragment of his overall salary. And if this represents a conflict of interest, he says, some of his critics may have one of their own if their careers depend on continuing lead research.

BANNER: If lead disappeared from the periodic table tomorrow, whose careers would be altered? Mine certainly would not be.

TOOMEY: While the Department of Health and Human Services may have rejected some nominations, two of those people will have some say in the direction of the committee. The panel has appointed Dr. Lanphear and another rejected nominee to serve on working groups for the committee. For Living on Earth, I’m Diane Toomey.

 

 

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