Working draft:

No good deed goes unpunished?


It is expensive to remove lead from old homes, especially ALL of it. Is there some "safe" level that can remain? If there is some tolerable level, renovations would be less costly, and more low-cost housing could be made available.

Johns Hopkins' Kennedy Krieger Institute wanted to find out how much lead has to be removed for a house to be "safe." These researchers helped landlords obtain grants and loans to be used to reduce levels of lead in their houses to various degrees.

About 95 percent of homes in the poor Baltimore neighborhoods where the study subjects lived have lead paint in them. The cleanup by the researchers ensured that the families in the study had at least 80 percent less lead paint than the rest of the homes in the neighborhood. These homes were then rented to families with young children (108), and they monitored lead levels in the children with regular blood tests and checkups. Tests showed high levels of lead in at least ONE child (Poynter).

Two families felt they had not been adequately informed about the research and sued.


We can all start suspicious here: where there's money at stake, we can expect to find more unethical activities, or at least marginal behaviors and corner-cutting.

But likewise, where there's a chance to sue then someone will. Was it really as bad as it might sound? Were the parents really not informed, or were they not listening, perhaps tempted by cheap rent or some such? Although this might be construed as taking advantage of people who have few choices, it also can be described as taking a freebie and then a chance at the lawsuit lottery, ala McDonalds and coffee (and obesity). Hard to know at a distance, so I will try to remain open.

It is unsavory, at the least, to subject children to hazards. Of course, that's one advantage of having responsible parents, and parents seem to have been involved here. It is also irresponsible to headline this as "exposing chidren to lead," if the experimental conditions were safer than the general environment. Overall, looking beyond the headlines, this suggests to me that opportunism is as much involved as money grubbing and cost-cutting and true risk. Let's sue somebody, anybody; nothing to lose, everything to gain.

It would be nice to have all sides of this, documented. Certainly the goals of this research can be presented in a very humanitarian way. And the University's story does have good material.

So I have to wonder: What did those consent forms actually say, that's key. And how thorough and how regular was the medical monitoring? And why did the vast majority of the parents feel OK?

Finally, we should keep in mind the hazards experienced by the participants compared to what. In this case, the norm group would be the other hundreds (actually thousands?) of kids in the neighborhood who were living in the untreated homes where the lead hazards were much higher, and who were not accorded the regular medical monitoring -- that's the "everyday risk." Comparatively the experimental participants certainly had good benefits to go with the alleged hazard, which itself was far less than their normal life. Is "zero risk" the proper comparison, or "everyday risk"?

It's pretty clear the children in the experiment were better off than their peers in the community. For this alone I am inclined to accept that this was a reasonable and useful project. Given the information that is readily available in the public domain, I conclude that the primary ethical problems here are associated with the legal profession and not with the researchers.

In any event, there is no sense in which industrial-strength reviewing of Social Science proposals is connected to nor justified by this incident.

However, this case does demonstrate why a lawyer on the review committee is ultimately useless: the institution can be sued for anything. And, in any event, it is the public these reviews are supposed to protect, NOT the institution.