The University of North Carolina (UNC) academic environmental activists are leading the way in giving opponents of hog farming manure and sewage sludge fertilizers a national audience. This week “epidemiology researchers from the Gillings School of Global Public Health” at the university published their findings that such “fertilizers” spread on fields are making people horribly sick.

“Treated municipal sewage sludge—that is, the solids from sewage treatment—may be causing illness in people up to a mile from where the sludge is spread on land,” a news release from the university started out.

The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill is definitely not the agricultural college; that title goes to North Carolina State University.

“More than half of people interviewed reported acute symptoms such as burning eyes, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea after sludge had been sprayed or spread. People who live near fields in which industrial swine operations spray waste have reported similar symptoms,” the study authors announced.

The problem is that there were only 34 participants, and they were “study participants” meaning they probably had an axe to grind in order to take the time for having an avenue to complain. And complaints are common from many who live in rural areas when pig manure is spread. I’m sure sewage sludge might have some odor, too. Conscientious farmers try to keep the odor down, but some people have a cataclysmic fit when they smell the slightest whiff of manure.

There also is a network of environmental activists who are involved in complaining about the use of manure as fertilizer. They spread the word on exactly what conditions people should complain about and the symptoms they should complain about from being near manure or sludge used as fertilizer. I saw it first hand when an environmental group hauled some rural residents to Washington, D.C., to complain to the national media and meet with members of Congress. Complaints and doctor-proven truth are two different things, which it doesn’t appear that the UNC study cared about. 

Their study, "Land Application of Treated Sewage Sludge: Community Health and Environmental Justice," was published online March 11 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It involved residents from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia who live near fields where sludge is applied as a soil amendment, according to the researchers.

"Study participants told us that onset of the symptoms occurred while the sludge was being applied or soon after," said Amy Lowman, research associate in epidemiology and the study's first author. "These were not one-time incidents, either. Respondents reported these illnesses occurring several times, and always after the biosolids were applied to nearby farmland."

“Other symptoms reported by more than one respondent in the wake of sludge applications included difficulty breathing, sinus congestion or drainage, and skin infection and sores,” Lowman is reported as explaining. The key here is “more than one respondent”—which is a small sampling on which to base conclusions.

The news release about the study further goes into claiming environmental contamination without enforcement of the sludge being properly applied. “Respondents also reported sludge run-off into local waterways and cattle grazing on fields soon after sludge applications,” the news release reports.

The lead author is quoted as noting that run-off is against the law, contaminates waterways, treated fields must have signage posted and livestock are not supposed to graze fields following sludge application for 30 days.

The true effort appears to be to end the use of fertilizers of any type because it might contaminate the pristine world that the activists envision where farming is outlawed in favor of wild flowers and rainbows every day of the year.

"Most people in towns and cities don't know where their sewage sludge goes," said Steve Wing, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School and a co-author of the study. "If they had to live near where it is being spread out, they might be more concerned about this practice. Many respondents in our study said it's not fair for rural people to bear the burden of urban waste disposal."

Lowman said, "We're talking about a material containing chemicals and organisms that can make people sick. Although the EPA promotes land application of sludge, it has not said the practice is safe for people's health or the environment. More than half of people interviewed reported similar symptoms. These reports came from individuals in three different states, on separate occasions, who lived up to a mile from areas where sludge was applied. The findings are consistent with previous reports of health impacts and support calls for health and environmental agencies to pay more attention to the potential for sludge to impact people who live near land application sites."

My contention is this is environmental activism rather than a public health study report by a university.