Dean hides evidence, lands top EPA job

by Dr. David Lewis | TLB Science Advisor

The story behind Thomas Burke, who heads EPA’s Office of Research & Development, is a shining example of why public skepticism of the scientific literature is growing. Before his appointment by President Obama, Burke was associate dean for Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Burke became the center of controversy when an institute he was associated with experimented with lead-contaminated sewage sludge, aka biosolids, applied in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Baltimore. In a report requested by Maryland’s Office of Civil Rights, I concluded that the combined levels of lead in biosolids and soil likely exceeded CDC safety limits for children.

Following a similar study involving lead paint, residents sued this same institute when their children developed lead poisoning. The institute had withheld the results of blood tests indicating some residents were starting to experience lead poisoning. Maryland’s appeals court likened the research to the government’s infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, and Nazi medical experiments during World War II.

The spotlight fell on Burke when he was chosen to chair a National Academy of Sciences panel, which EPA funded to assess the science supporting its biosolids policies. Should the panel find any evidence pollutants in biosolids pose a risk to public health, it would have far-reaching implications concerning the experiments EPA and Johns Hopkins University were conducting on African-American neighborhoods.

EPA and the wastewater industry stacked the panel with scientists funded to support EPA’s lax policies on biosolids. The path to giving biosolids a clean bill of health appeared to be clear. Then Ellen Harrison, a sludge critic at Cornell University, was added to the panel after environmental groups insisted scientists without conflicts of interest be included.

Harrison included my work documenting adverse health effects with EPA-approved biosolids in the Academy’s report. Burke removed it, however, when a panel member emailed him about a briefing Harrison and others had with EPA. He wrote: “I heard that EPA staff [were] denigrated [and] the work of David Lewis should be elevated. I did not agree…. We specifically noted that EPA should not be criticized … there are those on the Hill who would love nothing more than to criticize EPA.” After removing my work and concluding no documented evidence of adverse effects exists, Burke was rewarded with the Presidential appointment.


David Lewis, Ph.D.

Former U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist

David Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.

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