WASHINGTON - The Maryland Court of Appeals' harsh criticism of the Kennedy Krieger Institute's lead poisoning research has created the impression that researchers sacrificed children's health for the good of science.
The outrage expressed in news reports is rooted in the false premise that this study placed children in harm's way. The reality is that this research made homes safer, not only for the children in Baltimore but for hundreds of thousands of others across the nation.
Children do not live in lead-burdened houses because researchers want to "experiment" on them but because so much of our housing is contaminated by lead. According to the most recent national survey, 40 percent of all U.S. housing contains some lead-based paint.
The only way to prevent lead poisoning is to make properties safe from lead hazards before a child is poisoned. The only way to accomplish this is to figure out "what works."
Ironically, Dr. Julian Chisholm and Dr. Mark Farfel, the very researchers now being vilified, directed the pioneering study that proved traditional, haphazard abatement methods actually increase children's lead exposure.
As a result, conventional dusty paint removal methods, which were commonly required in the past, since have been banned by local, state and federal agencies. By highlighting the danger of lead dust and validating affordable measures for protecting children on a broad scale, their research helped shift the national approach to prevention and laid the foundation for science-based national standards.
Just as important, the greater good from the Chisholm/Farfel research did not come at the expense of families in Baltimore.
In contrast to the picture portrayed in the news media and by the court, their study was purposefully designed to provide lead safety treatments to families' homes that far exceeded state and local requirements and made these homes safer than they had been and safer than typical neighboring properties.
At the time of this study, from 1993 to 1995, most low-income families in Baltimore City had great difficulty finding lead-safe housing - and many still do. Because of the same ethical concerns later raised by the court, the study did not include families living in housing with unattended lead hazards as a control group.
The court's analogy to the notorious Tuskegee, Ala., experiments dealing with syphilis from 1932 to 1972 is sadly misplaced. The outrage of childhood lead poisoning is blasM-i acceptance that 5 million American preschool children - primarily low-income children - still live in homes with significant lead hazards.
In the Tuskegee experiment, researchers deliberately misled and withheld treatment from African-American men afflicted with syphilis in order to watch the progression of the disease.
Protecting all of our children requires committing the resources needed to make high-risk housing permanently lead-safe by apportioning responsibility among property owners, taxpayers and the paint companies that marketed a poisonous product for decades after the dangers were clear.
While the Maryland courts will determine whether the Kennedy Krieger Institute bears legal responsibility to anyone involved in this study, the urgent need remains for research to develop practical solutions to the vexing problems posed by lead-based paint in older, high-risk housing.
Of course research projects must meet the highest standards, including the ethical treatment of all individuals involved. But halting research designed to verify how to make houses safe would be a tragic disservice to the children who are still exposed to lead hazards in their homes.
Don Ryan is executive director of the Alliance To End Childhood Lead Poisoning, an advocacy group based in Washington.