David Lewis, PhD, Shifts Focus

In the 1990s and early 2000s, David Lewis, PhD, a microbiologist with U. S. EPA and the University of Georgia, was a vocal scientist in opposition to the use of biosolids (treated sewage sludge) on soils.  His limited research addressed a few valid concerns, but was based on minimal direct observation and amounted to only a few papers in the thousands of published research papers on the topic.  Yet it continues to be cited and has had impact reducing public support of effective biosolids recycling programs.  Now, Dr. Lewis is back in the news for speaking out in defense of a discredited doctor in the UK.

After publishing award-winning research regarding how “the AIDS virus could be transmitted by certain types of dental equipment that dentists share between patients” (see here) – which led to improved equipment sanitation practices – Dr. Lewis turned his attention to “sewage sludge” management.  He critiqued the U. S. EPA Part 503 rule and published a couple of papers suggesting a link between Class B biosolids land application and human health impacts (e.g. see here).  His conflicts with EPA led to a mutual agreement that he transition out of the Agency and back to the University of Georgia, a move he contested when the time came.  He started working with the National Whistleblower Center, where he currently “organizes conferences and other events concerning the use of academic institutions by federal agencies to support government policies and quash independent scientific research,” according to the organization’s website. 

For more than 15 years, Dr. Lewis has been a part of legal challenges regarding biosolids, including suing officials in the EPA Office of Water and researchers at the University of Georgia.  He has served as an expert witness in cases brought by concerned citizens arguing that biosolids caused health impacts.  He forced U. S. labor department review of what he considers his forced departure from U. S. EPA.  He has not won his cases.  And he was to be part of a U. S. Senate hearing that never happened.  See past NEBRA coverage here, here, and here).

Opponents of use of biosolids on land have often cited Dr. Lewis’s small oeuvre of work on biosolids, and, even though his published papers did not state causal relationships or clear conclusions, the concerns he voiced seemed to support their arguments.  For example, Caroline Snyder, PhD, of North Sandwich, NH, a long-time critic of biosolids use, supported Dr. Lewis in his legal battles and has often cited him, seeing him as a courageous fighter against a conspiracy coalition of government and industry.  For example, she was quoted in In These Times as saying “David Lewis is one of the victims. He was courageous enough to get into this. Very few scientists go into this, because they realize that being a whistleblower in this particular issue is a very risky practice. And he lost his job by actually doing research and publishing the link between human health and the use of sludge.”  (It is worth noting that numerous independent government and university researchers who have published hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers regarding biosolids management and potential risks don't agree that Dr. Lewis found any "link between human health and use of sludge.")

Now, apparently, Dr. Lewis has spent a good portion of his last two years building arguments in defense of Andrew Wakefield, the British former medical doctor and former medical researcher whose credentials were stripped after findings of fraud regarding research from which he alleged connections between MMR (mumps, measles, & rubella) vaccines and autism (see The Guardian for news stories about this case).

Recently, Brian Deer, a British investigative reporter, who received awards for his coverage of the Andrew Wakefield-MMR-autism story, provided a long rebuttal to accusations by Dr. Lewis against him and BMJ, the medical journal that published some of his reporting.

Why is this important to biosolids?  Because it displays a pattern in Dr. Lewis’s actions and further illuminates his motivations.  Dr. Lewis’s few published findings regarding  biosolids, which have been challenged by more experienced biosolids researchers, seemed to be driven by a similar mindset of going against the establishment and seeing a conspiracy of government and industry intent on keeping the truth from the people.

For example, compare Dr. Lewis’s and Dr. Snyder’s arguments regarding U. S. EPA and the “sludge industry” (which is, in reality, all the independent public wastewater treatment facilities that must manage wastewater solids; see also here) and Andrew Wakefield’s conspiracy theory regarding government, medical journals, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Here in New England, some of Dr. Lewis’s first expert testimony against agricultural use of biosolids occurred during a suit brought by a Greenland, NH family against Wheelabrator, a company later bought by Synagro.  In that case, Dr. Lewis proposed a radical theory that high levels of ammonia from biosolids stockpiles somehow traveled through the air hundreds of yards and into a home where it caused negative health impacts.  In sworn depositions, Dr. Lewis’s argument was completely discredited by several experts - but, immovable, he turned to other arguments.  The case ended with a settlement in which the litigants agreed that there was no scientific evidence that the alleged harm was caused by biosolids.  This was also the original finding of the NH medical examiner at the time of the events. 

In Dr. Lewis’s arguments in defense of Andrew Wakefield, he makes similar kinds of arguments and attacks those with differing opinions.  As Brian Deer notes in his rebuttal, “I first learnt of this man David Lewis in June 2011, when I was told that he’d submitted an abusive attack on me to a small, US-based journal. His article ran to more than 30 pages and was derived from baseless allegations by the discredited former surgeon Andrew Wakefield. Lewis’s general thesis, which he set out in detail later, is that I’m part of a conspiracy with the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies to exact what he calls “retribution” on the purportedly innocent Wakefield.”  

Reading the recent experiences of Brian Deer with regards to Dr. Lewis and Andrew Wakefield  (e.g. see the New York Times), brings back memories of the unsettling  controversy the biosolids management profession encountered with Dr. Lewis in years past.