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Lead Researcher Attacked on Landmark Study

April 13, 1992

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A University of Pittsburgh professor manipulated findings in a landmark study linking even small amounts of lead exposure to lowered IQs in children, two researchers testified Monday before a faculty ethics panel.

Dr. Herbert Needleman, whose 1979 study induced the federal government to compel reductions in lead paint in schools and homes, denied the charges.

″What happens here affects much more than my own destiny,″ Needleman said at the hearing, which he asked to be held in public. ″This is part of a longstanding campaign by the lead industry and its spokespersons to attack my work.″

In his widely quoted study, Needleman tested the teeth of children in Chelsea and Somerville, Mass., and found low levels of lead reduced their IQ scores by four points. Lead hinders development of the central nervous system.

A professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, Needleman did the study while on the Harvard University faculty.

Needleman has met his adversaries before.

Claire Ernhart and Sandra Scarr have testified in defense of lead manufacturers at trials where Needleman testified for plaintiffs trying to prove lead hurt them.

Ms. Ernhart is a professor of psychiatry and reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Ms. Scarr is a University of Virginia psychology professor.

The two first reviewed Needleman’s study preparing for a 1990 federal lawsuit against owners of a contaminated site in Utah. Ms. Ernhart and Ms. Scarr testified for the site owners.

They also raised questions about Needleman’s findings to the federal National Institutes of Health, which in turn asked Pitt to investigate the study and a 1990 followup.

Ernhart alleged that Needleman omitted crucial considerations about age and incorrectly removed some children from his sample of about 2,100 youngsters.

″He didn’t report data that didn’t support his hypothesis, and that led to overdrawn conclusions,″ Ms. Ernhart said.

If the ethics panel finds the allegations true, Needleman could be forced to return grant money and to correct his findings in scientific journals. He also could be demoted, suspended or fired, according to the university’s research integrity manual.

Needleman asked Ms. Ernhart several times about her paid testimony for the lead industry, but she refused to answer, calling it irrelevant.

But policy studies Professor William Cooley, chairman of the panel, said Needleman he could introduce Ms. Ernhart’s background later in his defense.

During the hearing, set to continue Tuesday, Needleman supporters in the Tri-State Environmental Council staged a demonstration outside. One carried a sign that read: ″On behalf of all children, we support and appreciate the work of Dr. Needleman.″