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By Gabe Rivin
On March 28, 1979, catastrophe loomed as Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, endured a severe meltdown in one of its nuclear reactors. The power plant’s failure released radioactive gases into the air, prompting worries across the region about the public’s exposure to dangerous radiation.
Federal and state officials later concluded that the accident hadn’t harmed residents’ health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains that residents’ average exposure was about one-sixth that of a chest X-ray.
Yet for Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at UNC-Chapel Hill who studied the issue, the official narrative ignored residents’ concerns.
“I got involved because I felt like the people I met were not being helped by anybody,” he said.
Years after the accident, Wing reevaluated Three Mile Island. And in a finding that’s perhaps no surprise to anyone who’s worked with Wing, his 1997 study contradicted the findings of government agencies.
Looking at cancer cases in the area before and after the accident, Wing found that the accident had, in fact, increased cancer rates for nearby residents.
“If you say that there was no high radiation, then you are left with higher cancer rates downwind of the plume that are otherwise unexplainable,” he said in a UNC statement.
Wing’s career at UNC has been marked by similarly contrarian work – a body of research that reevaluates official orthodoxy, and that focuses on a kind of social activism that’s rare in academia. Though nested in a premier research university, Wing believes his work to be in the public’s interest; he researches underrepresented and often-ignored populations, and, at times, his work blurs the conventional lines between detached university researchers and community advocates.
He’s won fans among students and fellow researchers for his approach. Yet he’s also won the scorn of major, moneyed industries, whose potential injustices Wing has worked to reveal.
An unconventional path
If Wing’s research interests are unconventional, then it makes sense he’d find an unconventional path into academia too.
Born in New Orleans, Wing moved to Durham before high school. After college, he returned to the Triangle and took a job at Duke University, where he spent his days xeroxing papers for faculty.
That changed when his department’s director summoned him for a conversation.
“Somebody in their training program had to drop out due to personal problems,” he said. “So he asked me whether I’d like to transfer from being an employee to being a graduate student.”
Wing seized the opportunity to gain a funded master’s degree, and studied the differences in mortality rates between U.S. whites and blacks. He continued that study through the late ‘80s, when he had the opportunity to take a new challenge – studying radiation exposure among workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which pioneered the first atomic bomb.
“I was told when I first started working with the group at Oak Ridge that we wouldn’t find any effects of the radiation exposures,” he said.
But the numbers told a different story. After analyzing data from radiation-measuring badges, Wing found that increases in radiation exposure were connected to increases in fatal cases of cancer.
Sniffing out problems at NC hog farms
Wing’s experiences studying Three Mile Island and Oak Ridge refined his view about the nature of public health research.
“In public health, the research questions we choose and the studies that we conduct respond to the needs of government or industry – basically, the organizations that have money to spend on research,” he said. “I became interested in the idea that there are problems that wouldn’t be identified by the authorities, that we could learn about if we just listen to the people who are exposed.”
In North Carolina, that meant looking at one of the state’s biggest industries: hog farming.
Beginning in the 1980s, North Carolina’s hog industry ballooned. Today, with roughly 8.6 million pigs, North Carolina’s industry is the second largest in the U.S. The industry is mainly clustered in the eastern portion of the state, where pig farms have grown increasingly industrial, with large numbers of pigs confined to cramped spaces.
Animal-rights activists take issue with concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which they view as inhumane. But the problems with industrial hog farms, environmentalists and others say, are about more than simply cramped quarters.
The densely packed animals produce large amounts of feces and urine. And farmers are legally allowed to pump the waste into open-air lagoons and to spray it on fields.
That’s a problem for nearby residents – many of whom are poor and racial minorities – who can smell the fecal waste when they step into their front yards, according to Wing. Residents complained about the stench. But the state government didn’t heed these concerns, saying they weren’t justified by research, Wing said.
Since the late 1990s, Wing, together with other researchers, has amassed a large pool of data that raises concerns about the effects of North Carolina’s hog farms.
In one study, Wing and his colleagues found that when malodors from swine farms increased, so did nearby residents’ blood pressures. According to the study, confined animal farms, like North Carolina pig farms, emit harmful air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide.
Another paper associated swine odors with increases in asthmatic symptoms among school children.
And in a study published in 2000, Wing and another researcher documented myriad health complaints among residents near hog farms, including headaches, runny noses, sore throats and diarrhea. Wing had faced criticism of his work on nuclear radiation. But that paled in comparison to the way the pork industry reacted to this paper.
The North Carolina Pork Council, the statewide industry association, demanded access to Wing’s records, citing state law for publicly funded research. The council threatened a lawsuit if he didn’t comply.
Even more, Wing said that if he didn’t turn over the documents he could have been arrested under the charge of stealing university property.
A Pork Council representative declined to comment on the case, saying that none of the current staff were employed by the organization in the late 1990s.
The experience was difficult for Wing, who said that he didn’t feel supported by staff at UNC. Still, he ultimately complied with the demand. First though, he redacted the identifying information of study participants, whose personal information he had promised would remain confidential.
Wing “was ethically correct in refusing to turn over his data without major redactions that would serve to protect the participants,” said Linda Adair, a professor at UNC’s school of public health and the chair of the institutional review board that oversaw Wing’s study.
Much of Wing’s research on hog farms has been driven by residents’ concerns and with their participation. Rather than study his subjects as an outsider, Wing engages them as researchers.
That’s been key to winning over their trust, according to Naeema Muhammad, the acting director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and a frequent collaborator with Wing, who sits on the organization’s board.
“The thing we enjoy about Steve is his level of respect for the community,” she said.
Muhammad said that Wing strives to educate community members, making them equal partners in the research. He’s also willing to have potentially uncomfortable conversations about large, systemic problems tied to race, she said.
Andrew Olshan, who chairs UNC’s epidemiology department, said that this style of community-driven research is increasingly common – and funding for it is more available now than ever. Olshan added that Wing’s approach to public health is one of many that researchers now value.
Yet Wing’s style raises a question. Is it a breach of objectivity if a researcher explicitly advocates the mission of a community organization, as does Wing?
The N.C. Pork Council has publicly sparred with Wing, calling his research “pseudo-science,” and claiming that Wing has a “determination to harm hog farmers.”
Wing said that pure objectivity is a misguided aim. Scientists are driven by ideologies and interests, whether they’re partnering with a pharmaceutical company or a nonprofit organization, he said. The important part, he added, “is to be clear about your affiliations,” and to follow proper, scientific research methods.
Wing also stressed the importance of being humble.
At the end of the interview, Wing asked a favor: Don’t make this a news story that glorifies an individual.
“This is not about one person, but about a broader movement,” he said. “Everything I’ve done has been collaborative.”