It was sometime in the late 1990s that Caroline Snyder first read news reports about a couple in Greenland, NH, who were blaming recycled sewage sludge - also known as biosolids - for the death of their son. Although she was an environmental scientist, Snyder didn't really know anything about sludge, but the story piqued her interest because she had recently retired to New Hampshire after 20 years of teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
Snyder soon discovered that the US Congress had banned dumping sludge into the ocean in the late 1980s, and the Environmental Protection Agency had drafted new rules allowing such sludge to be used as fertilizer. Although she was experienced in environmental activism, sludge was something new to her, and different. At the time, she was working to draft a bill that would prohibit aerial pesticide spraying on timber, "but concern about pesticides is not really very controversial," Snyder writes in an E-mail. "It is shared by the scientific community and all major environmental groups. Concern about sludge issues, however, is very controversial."
Urged by a friend in the New Hampshire legislature who was concerned about sludge, Snyder decided to dig into the issue. At that time residents in several states were claiming that recycled sewage sludge was damaging their health, and a few scientists were voicing their concerns as well. (According to later press reports, the autopsy of the Greenland man was inconclusive, and a lawsuit against the biosolids company settled for an undisclosed amount before going to trial.) Much of the soil science world, however, and the EPA maintained that the practice was safe.
Snyder felt equipped to tackle the complexities of sludge: Her RIT classes had emphasized the political side of environmental science and looked at the influence of law, industry, and economics. As she scrutinized the EPA's policy on biosolids, Snyder concluded that there was "a terrible corporate influence over science." She founded Citizens for Sludge-Free Land and began speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club as a sludge expert.
Her argument against biosolids was fueled by several articles in Nature by David Lewis, an EPA scientist at the time, who criticized EPA policy. Subsequently, Lewis claims, the EPA drained his funds and squeezed him out of the agency. Lewis's whistleblowing story received media attention, and it also struck a chord with Snyder. "I find it abhorrent. I'm a naturalized citizen, a refugee from World War II. I know what happens in communist and fascist countries," she says. "The scientific community should be outraged that scientific whistleblowers are not getting protections they deserve."
As Lewis became bogged down with legal problems (see "The Plight of the Whistleblower," in the January 17, 2005, issue of The Scientist), Snyder stepped in to help. In 2002 she surprised his lawyer with a $50,000 check to cover his legal expenses. And as Lewis struggled to keep his research afloat, Snyder took over writing what had been a joint project to expose what they say is the EPA's unprotective sludge policy.
Lewis says the resulting paper, published in the October-December 2005 issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH), is frequently quoted by lawmakers and sludge activists. (It had been cited only once in scientific journals tracked by ISI by mid-October of this year.) In it Snyder takes broad swipes at the EPA, claiming the agency forged an alliance with municipalities and sludge-management companies, whose "primary purpose was to control the flow of scientific information, manipulate public opinion, and cover up problems."
Lewis says Snyder was brave to enter the sludge arena, particularly in light of his own plight. But the response to Snyder's claims in her IJOEH article has "very gentlemanly," says the journal's editor, Joe LaDou. In May LaDou published a response from the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the upcoming January issue will carry a letter from an EPA scientist. The WEF's letter states that "40 years of concerted research and experience with biosolids recycling have found 'negligible risk,' as a 1996 National Academy of Sciences review stated."
But Snyder won't be satisfied until the definitive safety study has been done. Until then, she intends to continue spending her retirement on the front lines of the sludge debate. For her, retirement is the perfect time to act boldly. "Very few scientists are willing to speak out. Somebody like me who has nothing to lose can speak out."