Burkholder heads a research group that studies the nutritional ecology of freshwater plants. In 1989, they made a frightening discovery: An organism, Pfiesteria piscicida, was responsible for massive fish kills in North Carolina waters and was poisoning fish in waterways from Delaware to the Gulf Coast of Alabama.
Not only that, Professor Burkholder and her research team began getting sick, too. The symptoms were minor at first: shortness of breath, itchy eyes, headaches, and a slight forgetfulness. They soon discoverd that the greater their level of exposure to Pfiesteria, the more serious their symptoms became. Nor was this unique to them: people who fish coastal waters were becoming ill as well.
Burkholder informed authorities in the eastern and southern U.S. about Pfiesteria, assuming immediate action would be taken to eradicate this environmental and public health threat. Instead, government and private industry turned on her.
Burkholder's reports show that the worst Pfiesteria infestations are in waters full of waste from pig and chicken raising, and from phosphate-mining and farming. People in those industries did not want to hear this. Bowing to pressure, her own university disavowed her research; her professional reputation was smeared in the press. Even her life was threatened. She had to get an unlisted phone number and install a security system in her home. Dr. Burkholder was also blackballed by several state agencies; she had to hire an attorney to represent her against threatened litigation by the fishing and pork industries.
On the other hand, people working in the fisheries have urged her to keep speaking out, and she has received many awards for her contributions to environmental policy and education, including the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The scientists now conduct their research in a specially designed biohazard facility, using decontamination chambers, air locks, and hooded hazard suits. Still, 12 scientists from four different labs have serious, persistent health problems; Burkholder herself has had chronic bronchial infections and 16 bouts of pneumonia.
Committed to science and to public health, JoAnn Burkholder continues to conduct her research, to teach, and to spread the word about this serious toxin, despite the opposition of vested interests and the dangers to her own health.
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