By Catherine Clabby
When University of North Carolina epidemiologist Steve Wing died of cancer last November, the world lost a researcher effective at deploying science to help vulnerable people document environmental hazards.
As a memorial service celebrating Wing’s life last weekend made clear, that mission is not dead. Wing’s community collaborators and former students simply will not allow that.
At historic Gerrard Hall in Chapel Hill on Saturday, one speaker after another rose to describe Wing as a rare bird, a respected researcher at a ranking research university who carried his substantial expertise off campus to serve low-wealth communities.
“I did not get a lot of formal education. But with Steve I felt like I did go to a university,” said Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the NC Environmental Justice Network. “I can hold my own against anybody.”
Muhammad’s group helped file a civil rights complaint that just this month resulted in the EPA putting state environmental officials on notice. The federal agency sent a letter explaining that North Carolina could be discriminating against black, Latino and Indian residents by not adequately protecting them from health impacts, noxious odors, psychological harm and other impacts from intensive hog farms.
Documenting health risks
Wing, a professor the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, early on made a name in his field by detecting increased risks of cancer death among people who had worked at a nuclear weapons plant at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He also made a case for unrecognized health effects from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster in 1979.
In the 1990s Wing learned that people living near the expanding number of intensively packed hog barns in Eastern North Carolina were enduring dreadful odors and health impacts from smells, along with air emissions they had no control over. It didn’t escape Wing’s notice that most people dwelling near the big barns with open air sewage lagoons and boxes of dead animals awaiting disposal had little money and frequently were racial minorities.
“People told me about the contaminated wells, the stench from hog operations what woke them up at night and children who were mocked at school for smelling like hog waste,” Wing recounted in a TEDx talk he delivered in New York in 2013.
To document the toll, Wing and his students hauled sensitive air testing equipment, including a particle monitor; blood pressure cuffs; lung function monitors; along with income and race census data and statistical prowess to hardest hit communities. They then studied how people’s health outcomes corresponded to exposure to documented plumes of polluted air from the barns, carefully building a scientific case over years that emissions from densely populated hog farms can affect people’s health.
Wing and students didn’t just focus on agriculture in North Carolina. They found evidence that garbage dumps in North Carolina are more likely to be located in communities near where racial minorities and low-income people live too.
Not everyone in academia embraced this sort of research, which Wing placed firmly in the service of environmental justice, said Andrew Olshan, chair of the UNC epidemiology department who helped host the Saturday memorial.
“I have no doubt a small group of individuals viewed his work as biased because of his close partnership with activists and advocates,” Olshan said. “I think he was widely viewed as a hero.”
With Wing, documenting problems were always only a first step, said Sacoby Wilson, who earned his doctoral degree at UNC School of Public Health and is now an assistant professor of Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland.
“He’d say: So you found out something. What are you going to do with it? You can’t just send someone into a community and not do anything,” Wilson said at the memorial, where Wing’s wife, Betsy, and two adult daughters, Ann and Marion, sat in the front row.
Wilson is one of Wing’s many former students, women and men, still attempting to serve environmental justice. He is exploring pollution exposures from air and soil contamination as well as health effects experienced by people who live near the Port of Charleston in South Carolina. He is also working with residents of Brandywine, a community in Prince George’s County Maryland, to help them assess risks to drinking wells from coal ash waste pollution that escaped a coal-fired power plant property.
“You want to be just like Steve,” Wilson said at the memorial service.
Play defense too
Christopher D. Heaney, an assistant professor of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Wing taught graduate students such as him that critics would look for weaknesses in their research.
As a result, Heaney said, Wing would coach them to be certain that every step in their studies was rigorous and defendable, from the study design to their data collection and, finally, to the interpretation.
“We needed to anticipate every critical question about bias or every perception about how our results could be interpreted from different vantage points and be ready. We had to be better than any opposing headwind we might face,” Heaney said.
Heaney is still exploring health effects from hog production sites in North Carolina. Not long ago, he published data showing that hog production facility workers carrying livestock-associated, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their noses and may develop skin infections from those bacteria.
He and his collaborators have also found children who live with adults working at the facility are more likely to carry the drug-resistant bug in their noses than other children.
When Heaney described his findings last fall at the 2016 Fall Forum: Health and the Environment in North Carolina, Wing, quite sick by then, was not in the audience. But his influence was evident.
As Wing did many times, Heaney had listed a community activist among his co-authors on his research papers on the medicine-resistant microbe exposures. His co-author was Devon Hall, executive director of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help in Duplin County, North Carolina.
When it was time to address the audience at the Duke forum, Heaney did not stand alone to explain the work to the mostly expert audience.
Hall stood with him, and they explained the work together.