Academe: Magazine of the AAUP
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.
The Business of Sludge
Sewage sludge is composed of residuals removed from wastewater that comes from homes, hospitals,
and industries. Waste-water-treatment systems are designed to remove pollutants that could
contaminate public waterways. Sludge—called “biosolids” by those who produce it, spread it, and
regulate it—includes these pollutants as well as bacteria and wastewater-treatment chemicals. The
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the United States produces more than eight
million dry tons a year of sewage sludge, the majority of which is spread on rural lands.
Although rural residents like Nancy Holt have reported illnesses associated with land applications of
sludge for many years, government agencies do not routinely investigate or maintain records of illness
reports. Despite the fact that a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report called for investigations into
human exposure to sludge and illnesses, the United States has no database for tracking where the
nation’s sludge has been applied.
When the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) issued a request for proposals to develop
a system for monitoring and investigating illness reports, Nancy encouraged our research group to
apply. WERF is a nonprofit organization funded jointly by municipalities that produce sludge,
corporations that spread it, and the EPA, which established regulations in 1993 intended to protect
health and the environment from sludge. In a 2005 article in the International Journal of Occupational
and Environmental Health, Caroline Snyder, professor emerita at Rochester Institute of Technology,
describes an “unholy alliance” of government, industry, and academics working to promote land
application of sludge, to prevent stricter regulations, and to influence research. She also describes
attacks on EPA and university scientists who questioned the safety of current regulations.
Like other industry groups that rely on so-called sound science to promote their practices, WERF likes
to fund university scientists to provide an aura of authority and independence. According to the
University of Arizona’s Water Quality Center, which is funded by municipalities that produce sludge,
corporations that spread sludge, and the National Science Foundation, “University interactions with
industry provides [sic] credibility with the general public.” This is a good fit, because academics need
funding and publications to advance their careers, and industry-associated groups can help.
A Divisive Process
Despite reservations about WERF, in October 2005, our research group responded to its request with
a proposal to develop a protocol for surveillance and investigation of illnesses reported by people living
near fields where sludge is spread. Establishing a surveillance system often is a first step in evaluating
the magnitude of a problem and how it changes over time. In March 2006, WERF announced that our
proposal had been selected, and in April, WERF’s research director and program officer visited our
campus to negotiate a contract with UNC–Chapel Hill business officials. I participated as the proposed
Working in a department where tenured faculty members are expected to cover a majority of their
salaries with outside funding, I am familiar with how grants and contracts work. However, this was
different. First, the draft contract required that UNC–Chapel Hill assign all copyrights to WERF. WERF—
which sells reports— would own the data and control release of our reports, allowing us to publish only
with its permission. If WERF failed to accept our findings, it could prohibit us from publishing or
presenting our final report. At the April meeting, I was pleased, indeed proud, that the UNC–Chapel Hill
contract specialist for nongovernmental funding told WERF that the university does not enter into
contracts that prevent investigators from releasing or publishing work.
But that was to change. WERF and UNC–Chapel Hill’s Office of Sponsored Research began
negotiating contract revisions, including the publishing restrictions. Soon WERF informed us that the
funding would come from the EPA. Consequently, another contract specialist was assigned to the
negotiations. She informed me that the university would accept WERF’s restrictions if I wanted to
proceed with the contract. I insisted upon the basic principles of open access to and free dissemination
of research. I explained that our work was supposed to assist public-health agencies and that UNC–
Chapel Hill had a responsibility to make our findings freely available.
An attorney from the university counsel’s office proposed alternative language that would allow us to
publish. But, on June 30, WERF rejected the language, agreeing only to permit the university to use
project materials for “internal and educational purposes.” Although WERF described this as its final
offer, we refused to accept the restrictions. The university attorney then made another proposal.
WERF’s final offer turned out to be a bluff. On July 31, more than four months after choosing UNC–
Chapel Hill for the research, WERF agreed to grant the university unrestricted rights to use our work
for any purpose.
The contract-negotiation process, contorted by WERF’s attempt to maintain control over publicly
funded research to be conducted at a public university, foreshadowed greater problems. WERF
appointed a ten-member committee to oversee our work. In addition to officials from government
agencies and two university scientists (neither an epidemiologist), the committee included a former vice
president of Synagro Technologies, Inc., the nation’s largest sludge-management company, which
funds WERF and the University of Arizona’s Water Quality Center. During conference calls and
meetings at WERF’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, committee members argued with us and
each other over basic principles and minute details. The disagreements could not have slowed and
undermined our work more effectively if the committee members had been chosen for that very
purpose. To make matters worse, WERF insisted that we could not communicate directly with the
committee members who were supposed to be advising us. All communication had to go through the
WERF project manager.
Our report provided guidelines for surveillance and investigation of illnesses reported by people who,
like Nancy Holt, live near sites where sewage sludge is spread. We did not conduct a health-effects
study; rather, we developed an approach for tracking sludge processing and spreading in areas where
neighbors of land-application sites report symptoms.
In the end, the report suffered from the divisive process. Although we resisted some pressures, we
were overly influenced by constant demands from both the WERF staff and the committee members.
We included too many conflicting components and accepted too much diluted language. Still, for
months, WERF neither accepted nor rejected our report. Finally, and only after we posted it on a UNC–
Chapel Hill Web site, did WERF officially accept the report and make it available to its members and the
Over the past several decades, substantial attention has been devoted to financial conflicts of interest
in industry-funded academic research. Focusing solely on problems with industry funding may suggest
that other funding sources do not compromise the public responsibility of academic institutions.
However, that’s not the case, especially when government agencies work more closely with polluters
than with communities affected by pollution.
WERF’s sponsorship of research on sludge, and its efforts to control both the creation and
dissemination of scientific knowledge, is just one example of a broader problem that affects funding
from organizations and government agencies aligned with corporate interests. In energy, agriculture,
health, and the environment, industry trade associations maintain close ties with government agencies
whose mission should be protecting the public interest. Government agencies, however, too often
forget that corporations exist to advance their investors’ interests, not those of the public. Combining
private and public resources, nonprofit groups and government agencies influence the direction and
character of research by funding universities, professional associations, and scholarly journals.
Unfortunately, few researchers have evaluated that influence.
To guard the public interest from financial conflicts, universities must look beyond the industry-funding
problem to consider the nature and depth of influences from nonprofits, including foundations, as well
as from government agencies closely tied to industry. Although financial pressures make it difficult, we
can promote academia’s commitment to the public interest by reporting on and teaching about these
conflicts of interest.
To understand how the increasingly complex mixture of pollutants from municipal and industrial
wastewater affects health and the environment, the public needs research that is not unduly influenced
by entities that need to dispose of waste cheaply and profitably. If universities are to help, they must
identify and control conflicts of interest from government and nonprofit organizations, not simply those
that come directly from industry, which understands well how to use strategic partnerships to shape
knowledge about safety and health.
All over the country, waste from homes and industry constantly flows to treatment plants. Most of us
never think about what happens to it. But people like Nancy Holt do. They live with it and continue to
report problems with their health and quality of life. Along with many scientists, they worry about the
long-term effects of the pollutants in sludge on livestock, food safety, water quality, and the health of
farmland. The paucity of research on the health impacts of sewage sludge—a topic the dominant
corporategovernment- academic research alliance has skillfully managed— magnifies their concerns.
Steve Wing teaches epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and conducts
research on occupational and environmental health. His recent work has focused on health impacts of
ionizing radiation, industrial animal production, sewage sludge, and environmental injustice. His e-mail
address is email@example.com.
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