Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sewer Study in Poor Black Neighborhoods - Good Science or Bad Policy?

Recently, some media outlets have cried a possible foul against the scientific research community concerning a study that fertilized lawns with human and industrial waste as possible remediation to lead poisoning. NPR News & Notes featured a piece about Scientists Under Fire for Sewage Sludge Study. Francis Holland ranted about it too on American Journal of Color Arousal. Study participants were all Black and lived in poor urban neighborhoods. Since this research is 'government funded' some are asking whether these participants were intentionally targeted and if the government is 'deliberately experimenting on vulnerable citizens'.

I realize that the black community is still untrusting of scientists and science research. And this issue has several groups like the NAACP up in arms claiming Tuskegee type issues. What is the main problem? That the recent research was done in those neighborhoods or that the research was done and people were harmed? If people were harmed AND they were not fully alerted to the dangers (I doubt that) AND they were not treated AND the incident was swept under the rug, then there is a point and the anger is justified. But according to the press stories none of these scenarios seem to be the case.

It seems the matter of research can’t be addressed objectively among the Black community because of the sensitivity regarding the Tuskegee Experiment. The Tuskegee Experiment was a sad page in history, but let's keep things in perspective. 1. Monitoring the unchecked effects of syphilis in blacks was a meaningful experiment - at that time. Back then, Syphilis was unchecked in everybody and because of racist beliefs, many people really believed that similar treatment in blacks as whites would have been a waste. As sad it is sounds, the doctors wanted to prove (not just provide anecdotal evidence) that Syphilis harms black people just as bad as Europeans. 2. What made the Tuskegee Experiment egregious was the fact that a cure had been found and they did NOT Inform the participants.

Since that case, the laws and ethics of clinical research have improved dramatically. Remember the finding that hormone therapy might be harmful to menopausal women? They pulled that treatment and halted that study. That's how research works now. Also, Institutional Review Boards (IRB) are VERY stringent and serious about critiquing ALL research before ANY experiment is done. They make sure everything is proper and safe and legal. They follow strict federal and state and professional research organizations’ procedures and ethics guidelines when conducting ANY research with living subjects, especially human. They err on the side of safety and caution. These Boards are not comprised of a group of like mined scientists who co-sign each other’s research. These boards consists of scientists, a doctor or veterinarian, lay persons from the larger community (such as clergy or politicians or teachers or community activist). And you best be sure the university administrators have lawyers look over things for liability as well.This case is a perfect example of a sensationalized story that was presented to speak to people’s fears and ignorance about science or research processes. I understand the sensitivity we have that poor, marginalized people may be being taken advantaged of in research studies. But that fear and the campaign against research is harmful.

This is a matter alerts me of the crucial need to increase the public’s awareness of science and research. The need to increase scientific literacy among people is not just limited to the marginalized and under-educated, specifically black people. I keep discovering that even presumably well-educated black people are still prone to get keyed up emotionally and are largely ignorant about science and how it proceeds.

Which leads me to address one more issue - Government funded research does NOT mean government directed research. Scientists develop hypotheses from direct observations. Hypotheses aren't handed down to scientists. This research was undertaken by a team of academic researchers. This was an idea that they developed, perhaps born of real-life issues they were encountering - lead poisoning of nearby residents (who happen to be poor and black). The researchers secured funding to undertake this research - they asked for the money, the government was not trolling around for researchers willing to make guinea pigs out of people.


Francis L. Holland Blog said...

You said,

"The need to increase scientific literacy among people is not just limited to the marginalized and under-educated, specifically black people. I keep discovering that even presumably well-educated black people are still prone to get keyed up emotionally and are largely ignorant about science and how it proceeds."

First of all, I am not "marginalized and under-educated." I'm a Black lawyer, and the Blacks who are angry about this are lawyers, accountants, professors and professional journalists of the AfroSpear, among others.

This same scientist engaged in "research" that was compared to Nazi experiments by a court in Maryland, because he experimented exclusively on Black people in an that should be considered unethical regardless of the color of the victims.

"HUD documents show the study's lead author, Mark Farfel, has pursued several other studies of lead contamination including the risks of exposure from urban housing demolitions and the vacant lots left behind.

(. . . )

Some of Farfel's previous research has been controversial.

In 2001, Maryland's highest court chastised him, Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins over a study bankrolled by EPA in which researchers testing low-cost ways to control lead hazards exposed more than 75 poor children to lead-based paint in partially renovated houses.

Families of two children alleged to have suffered elevated blood-lead levels and brain damage sued the institute and later settled for an undisclosed amount.

The Maryland Court of Appeals likened the study to Nazi medical research on concentration camp prisoners, the U.S. government's 40-year Tuskegee study that denied treatment for syphilis to black men in order to study the illness and Japan's use of "plague bombs" in World War II to infect and study entire villages." YahooNews

The question to be answered here is why this "scientist" conducts his experiments exclusively upon Black people.

I don't understand why you are defending him, unless you think that exposing people to contaminants based on their skin color is an acceptable way to conduct scientific research.

Would YOU consider it ethical behavior to expose exclusively Black people to harmful contaminants, even after the "Maryland Court of Appeals likened the study to Nazi medical research"?

If so, then you shouldn't be permitted to engage in scientific research and at all, and particularly not with the approval and funding of the United States Government.

The Urban Scientist said...

I am not defending an unethical scientist. Your point that this particular scientist may be questionable is noted. I don't know his record. However, regarding the particular matter of the sewer study, what is the foul? Were people harmed? Were people duped into participating?

If either of these are your cases, then I follow you. But everyone is focusing on the subjects - being from a poor neighborhood, and everyone is assuming that the subjects were taken advantage of.
What is the evidence of that - real or anecdotal?

And Mr. Holland, I know that you are neither marginalized or're the well-educated person I was refering to... you responded to the wrong zing.

And yes, I realize that poor scientific literacy is an epidemic among most people, but it has been my personal experience, that scientific and clinical research is a sore subject among most black people. People pre-emptively fight about the issue whenever the subject comes up. That has prevented so many people from really learning about new discoveries and understanding science.

Seems the big issue for you is the fact that this scientist works exclusively with Black subjects (or so it seems).

I agree that can look odd. But there are many scientists and research physicians who work with specific populations. I personally know a psychologists who only studies Black and Latino families. Why? Because she is interested in questions of family dynamics in these populations. But she is Black. And I've noticed that Black researchers doing research with subjects seems to arouse less suspicion. Is that your point?

If this researcher is primarily interested in the effects of lead poisoning, then it makes sense that most of his subjects are poor, black, live in urban neighborhoods and poor housing conditions. Lead poisoning is a BIG problem and primarily affects people whose live in old, poorly maintained buildings in former industrial areas in big cities.
Lead poisoning research is pretty much a poor black population issue. Do a search on this type of research and without trying, most subjects are persons of color, urban, and poor.

They are already exposed to those contaminants (lead in paint), the study wanted to know what is the impact of that exposure. The sewer sludge fertilizer met existing standards of fertilizer (akin to spreading manure on lawns) and the question was "will this fertilizer lower the concentration of lead subjects are already exposed to?"

Alarming people, specifically Black people, that here we go again with the Tuskegee Experiments, only interferes with the scientific and medical communties ability to resolve issues that affect people. In this case, the very people it tends to impact and harm the most - poor, marginalized citizens. Lead poisoning is a big problem - and it is pretty much a class issue.