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When Research Turns to Sludge

It’s not just corporate funding that creates conflicts of interest. Even government and nonprofit funding can have strings attached.

By Steve Wing

Environmental epidemiologists sometimes hear from people dealing with pollutants and sickness. So I wasn’t surprised when Nancy Holt contacted me about the millions of gallons of municipal sewage sludge being spread on fields near her home in Orange County, North Carolina. Sometimes, she said, the stench was so awful that she and her husband had to cover their faces when they went outside. They had trouble breathing. Sores broke out on her grandchildren’s bodies after they played in a nearby creek. She had her well tested. It was contaminated with bacteria and chemicals. Droplets of wet sludge covered her mailbox.

By the time she called me at my office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy was fed up with the runaround from local, state, and federal agencies. Government employees had tried to reassure her that sewage sludge is safe, that existing rules protect public health, and that there is no evidence sludge ever harmed anyone. When she learned that our research group had been studying the effects of industrial hog operations on neighbors’ health and quality of life, she thought we might be able to evaluate the impacts of sewage sludge.

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