May 5, 2016
—Andrew Olshan, PhD, Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor in Cancer Epidemiology and Chair, Department of Epidemiology
People initiate social movements because they want better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. Steve Wing, PhD, believes public health research can make significant contributions to such movements.
The social activists may be workers who organize to demand safer and healthier conditions on the job. They may be members of civic or faith-based organizations that petition authorities for changes that will improve the air, ground and water where they live, learn and play.
Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has championed the causes of workers and communities of color for more than 30 years. He does this by meticulously documenting exposure levels to environmental contaminants and making connections to public health impacts. He has published in the field’s most prestigious peer-reviewed journals and earned accolades for scholarship, teaching, mentoring and community work.
“Ultimately, public health is about changing something,” says Wing. “I’ve learned, especially as I began to work with community organizations in North Carolina, that it’s my responsibility not only to publish in scientific journals, but to try to communicate the results to vulnerable people.”
In that realm, Wing has conducted studies of air and water pollution that have empowered communities of color to organize and confront corporations engaged in industrial hog production in eastern North Carolina. He has involved community members in designing research, collecting data and disseminating results so they can use science to advocate for public health.
“His attitude, his ability to talk with people – not over their heads, but to sit down and have a real exchange – is the reason for his success in partnering with African-American communities in the eastern part of the state,” says Naeema Muhammad. “He has such humility. He’s very respectful and mingles with people in a real way.”
Muhammad is co-director of the N.C. Environmental Justice Network. She has worked with Wing since the late 1990s and was instrumental in recruiting community members to participate in data collection about the health effects of air pollution from hog factories. She also recruits community members every spring to come to Chapel Hill and share their experiences with students in Wing’s environmental justice course.
Sarah Hatcher, PhD, now a postdoctoral researcher in environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School, first worked with Wing as an undergraduate. As a doctoral student, she did not have a formal advising relationship with him, but she considers him a mentor, especially because of the community-based research she conducted on workers’ exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in confined animal feeding operations.
“He probably has played the biggest role in my career and personal development,” says Hatcher. “His work serves as an incredible example of the importance of doing meaningful public health research, communicating results to – and partnering with – community members.”
Kenda Freeman, a research and communications specialist for MDB Inc., who holds a Master of Public Health in environmental sciences and engineering from the School, says Wing’s class inspired her interest in environmental justice, particularly in occupational health.
“His teaching style brought life to the discipline of environmental health and made me realize that I was in the right field,” says Freeman.
Today, part of her job involves working with staff in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Worker Training Program to communicate and translate information that emphasizes the importance of worker safety, training and education.
Wing’s early career focused on occupational epidemiology in nuclear weapons production. There, he saw the conflict between corporate profits and worker health outcomes related to radiation exposure. Early on, he recognized the inequity that employers, but not workers, could hire scientists to conduct research and testify on their own behalf.
As he believes that workers also deserve access to scientific information, he has made himself available to those who normally could not afford the kind of help he offers, including being a longtime consultant to survivors of Hiroshima.
In 1995, communities exposed to fecal waste from industrial hog operations sought his input. At the time, he knew nothing about the issue. Upon further study, he found that much of the academic research on the subject focused on animal nutrition, breeding or waste management, but not on public health, he says.
North Carolina’s hog production is concentrated in the coastal plain in low-income communities of color. As a product of segregation-era New Orleans, Wing was outraged by the racial injustice involved in the placement of the farms. As a child, he had been unable to reconcile the “Whites Only” signs throughout his city with learning in school that “all people are created equal.”
Wing remains concerned about the role wealth plays in politics – how it prevents citizens from getting redress from the government when they are harmed by industry and how it affects the funding of research.
“If one theme connects my research, public service and teaching,” says Wing, “it’s that our universities are increasingly beholden to corporate interests. Research funding often comes from industry, nonprofit trade associations and government agencies that are influenced by campaign contributions and armies of lobbyists.”
Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit sph.unc.edu/cph.