RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Corporations Trash Research Universities

It's official. By which I mean that it's been in the Wall Street Journal. Our research universities are becoming hazardous waste dumps, the academic earth loaded with chemicals that taxpayers will have to pay to remove.

Take University of Georgia, for example. "Buried in the hillside are tons of leaky containers of unknown chemicals, along with the rotting carcasses of chickens, mice, rats and other lab animals dosed with chloroform and slightly radioactive tracer chemicals. When it rains, a watery tea of all this stuff oozes from the soil into the stream ... " says the Journal.

According to Industry's most credible and revered source, Yale, Stanford, the University of Hawaii, and the University of West Virginia all have environmental problems and have been cited by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Some of the waste is generated through undergraduate education, but most of it is left when researchers finish grant work and move on, or when grants pay for professor stipends and materials, but not for clean-up. Universities are eager for such grants, because the money brings the highest caliber researchers to campus. At the same time, corporations benefit because the researchers' work results in patents and products that can be purchased or appropriated by the industry.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, hazardous waste from the university dumps is dangerous to ground water and to university visitors. The University of Georgia Botanical Garden is built on a hazardous waste dump, nice place for a picnic, and will be cleaned up at a cost of "at least $20 million." The Journal article doesn't touch on health dangers to neighbors and to lab assistants.

It's not just the university turf that's at risk. Just like the rest of us, professors take their work home. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, a household hazardous waste collection netted so many chemicals from professors' basements that the City of Columbia was stuck with a $40,000 disposal bill.

At the University of Missouri-Rolla, formerly called the Rolla School of Mines, a $44,000 grant from the US Interior Department allowed the university to build a smelting facility to test lead mined from the Ozarks. The project, a corporate welfare gift from Senator Kit Bond to Doe Run Mining, was built as cheaply as possible and even allowed plastic pipe for high-temperature vent.

It didn't take long for the plastic pipe to fail, and lead and toxic waste were released into the air every time the smelter was cranked up. According to lab technician Bob Lunsford, who reported the scam to the Department of Natural Resources, clouds of waste were released into the engineering building, and sifted down to a Catholic school, apartments, and restaurants within a few hundred yards of the place. On a test run of the smelter April 3, 1997, 14 pounds of lead sulfate was released into the environment.

Lead contaminated the building's trash that was picked up and taken to the landfill. Lead-laced cleaning rags were routinely discarded with other trash. Lead contaminated the gray water that traveled through the drains and into the Rolla city sewage treatment plant.

Lead is a heavy metal that has been proven to cause mental retardation in children, but lab assistants working on the grant were not given respirators, safety glasses, disposable clothing or booties. Custodians cleaning the building were given no special instruction. All of the workers took lead home to their families.

Everyone that worked in the building, from custodians to kids in the Catholic school next door to visitors admiring the campus's scale model of Stonehenge, was endangered.

In short, research universities are hazardous to public health. They have shown again and again that they are not willing or able to anticipate problems with experiments and safeguard the public. Consider the troubles that research ag schools have unleashed on the public. Animal factories, like Missouri's infamous Premium Standard Farm, were fine-tuned by ag school profs working for industry. Experimental model waste lagoons monitored by teams of grad students behaved just fine. But the researchers didn't have the time or money to figure out that waste lagoons in the environment would be clogged with discarded trash like fetuses, work gloves and syringes. Or that the dams would leak and spill contents into creeks. Or that the gasses would make neighbors sick.

Biotech crops, like the Bt tomatoes, potatoes and corn that exude their own pesticides from every cell, came from university labs. These labs are financed by industry or by generous taxpayer-financed grants. The grants, have been awarded by federal foundations like the National Science Foundation. The foundations are funded by taxpayer money appropriated by grateful, re-elected senators who received campaign money from industry.

But scientists are interested in science, and not in how the science relates to the world. The Bt crops have been implanted with genes that create their own insect killer. That's all the scientists wanted to achieve. Their experimental crops proved to be pest-resistant, but the researchers didn't have enough time or money to see if the crops killed other animals -- like Monarch butterflies. And, the pesticides stay in the soil for months after harvest. In fact, nobody knows how long it takes for a field of Bt corn to lose its toxicity, or how many species the toxic chemical kills.

Scientists also forgot to find out if the crops were safe for animals and humans to eat. Or if Bt pollen would infect nearby traditional crops. Or if nearby weeds pick up the Bt-producing genes and begin to kill on their own. Or if the target species, the enemy insects, would become resistant to Bt.

When criticized, the researchers have refused to accept evidence from the field, and demanded "hard science." When confronted with hard science, much of it from labs in Europe, the researchers have another answer: "Our next generation of gene-tinkered plants will be better," goes the story, "safer, cheaper, smarter."

We can stop this madness now by refusing to buy the stuff Industry cooks up in the University labs. Safer, cheaper, smarter? That's us!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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