Kennedy Krieger sued over lead study

2 parents contend institute did not abate hazards as promised

Hopkins blames landlords

September 06, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The Kennedy Krieger Institute, already criticized by Maryland's highest court for ethical violations in conducting one lead study, is now under attack for another.

Two parents, Veronica Scott and Michelle Hopkins, sued the institute in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday, saying they were led to believe that Kennedy Krieger would remove lead hazards from their homes. Their children, who had lead poisoning before they joined a 1995-1998 study, suffered further brain damage because they remained in contaminated houses, the parents contend.

"This prestigious institution essentially induced parents to keep their children in houses with lead hazards with the promise that the houses would be repaired and made lead-safe, but they did not do this," said lawyer Evan K. Thalenberg. "It was a violation of trust."

Officials at Kennedy Krieger, a nonprofit institution affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University that focuses on childhood disabilities, declined to discuss specifics of the two cases. But the officials said that 95 percent of the participating children saw their lead levels drop during the study and that families were free to move out of their homes at any time.

They added that removing lead hazards was the responsibility of landlords, not researchers. The scientists in some cases tried to help landlords obtain state loans to pay for lead abatement, but the state provided only enough money for about a third of the 200 Baltimore households in the study.

"If you are renting a house, and a child is lead poisoned in that house, you have 30 days to clean up the hazards," said Dr. Gary W. Goldstein, president of Kennedy Krieger. "That is the landlord's obligation. We didn't create these conditions and violations."

Goldstein said that it would have been better to move all of the children to lead-free homes, but that 95 percent of the houses in East Baltimore have lead hazards and Kennedy Krieger did not have enough money for new homes.

The treatment of research subjects at Hopkins and its affiliated institutions has come under intense scrutiny since the federal government shut down human experiments there in July after the death of a young woman in an asthma study.

In addition, Kennedy Krieger was faulted by the Maryland Court of Appeals on Aug. 16. The judges criticized the institute for conducting a study in which healthy children were encouraged to move into lead-contaminated homes.

In harsh language, the court compared that study to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972, which denied treatment to poor black men so researchers could observe the progress of the disease.

Thalenberg said he interprets the court's ruling to mean that consent forms signed by research volunteers are the equivalent of contracts that give researchers a special duty to care for their subjects, not just use them as guinea pigs.

At the center of the claims by Scott and Hopkins is a sentence in the consent forms they signed that reads: "All children in the TLC [Treatment of Lead Exposed Children] study will have their homes repaired and/or cleaned to get rid of lead dust and chipped paint."

The parents contend that "get rid of" means that Krieger assumed responsibility for removing lead hazards from their homes.

Kennedy Krieger officials say they fulfilled their responsibility by mopping and vacuuming all the homes and by helping to arrange lead abatements for as many families as they could afford.

The $30 million TLC study examined 780 children with lead poisoning in four cities. It was funded and coordinated by a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

Children with moderate lead poisoning were given a drug called succimer or a placebo as part of a trial to see whether the medication would prevent the reduced mental abilities that often result when children ingest lead.

The children's blood and cognitive abilities were tested by researchers at Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins, as well as seven other institutions, including Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and the University of Maryland.

The study found that the children who took the drug performed just as poorly on tests as the children who did not take it, according to an article May 10 in The New England Journal of Medicine.

According to her lawsuit, Scott gave birth to her daughter, Quyaisha Coles, on May 8, 1994, and moved into a dilapidated rental rowhouse in the 900 block of Collington Ave. in East Baltimore a few weeks later.

When Quyaisha was about 14 months old, a routine screening at a clinic showed that she had a blood-lead level of 34 micrograms per deciliter - a level that can impair brain functions later in life.

The city health department cited her landlord, Lawrence M. Polakoff, with an emergency violation notice on Aug. 16, 1995, and gave him 30 days to remove lead paint from 38 trouble spots in the home.

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