The Threats to Public Health and Safety for People Living Near Factory Farms
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegan.”
Slaughterhouse workers have one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally dangerous jobs in existence. They work in unsanitary, unsafe conditions, while doing profoundly traumatizing work. Between 25-30% of factory farm workers suffer from serious respiratory diseases such as acute and chronic asthma and bronchitis. They also have an increased risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders and losing their hearing. But the threats to human health caused by factory farms are not contained within their walls. For rural communities, the nearby construction of slaughterhouses similarly poses alarming threats to their health and safety.
In the United States alone, factory farms produce approximately 500 million tons of animal waste per year, which is over three times more than all of the human waste Americans generate.
This waste contains highly toxic chemicals and bacteria that contaminate surrounding soils, air, and waterways.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified factory farms (or “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs)) as “leading sources of pollutants” for waterways. Animal excrement is stored in enormous lagoons which can leak contents full of bacteria, viruses, pathogens, and parasites into the surrounding groundwater. According to the EPA’s 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, at least 29 states identified water contamination originating from animal feeding operations. In the event of a hurricane, flood, or simply faulty holding equipment, the surrounding area can be flooded with millions of gallons of manure.
North Carolina has experienced several such floods, like the one following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and more recently following Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Most factory farms produce more manure that can be stored in lagoons, so operators will either spread untreated manure on surrounding soils or spray them with liquid manure, releasing toxins and pollutants into the air that local communities breathe in. Decomposing manure also releases toxic gases into the air, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Given that about 70% of the antibiotics produced in the US are fed to livestock, antibiotics also pass into the water supply along with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that develop in farmed animals. It’s the gift that just keeps on giving, right?
"Animal excrement is stored in enormous lagoons which can leak contents full of bacteria, viruses, pathogens, and parasites into the surrounding groundwater."
The health impacts of all of this contamination for nearby communities is appalling. Let’s begin with the airborne contaminants. The National Association of the Local Boards of Health break down the risks of the the most prevalent airborne toxins released by factory farms:
There is growing evidence that exposure to toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide can cause brain damage. According to Dr. Killburn, a toxicology professor at the University of Southern California, ''the coincidence of people showing a pattern of impairment and being exposed to hydrogen sulfide arising from lagoons where hog manure is stored and then sprayed on fields or sprayed into the air'' makes a connection ''practically undeniable.''
In 2003, Iowa state environmental officials found that in the month of April alone, there were 22 days where the levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia surpassed levels that the state considered safe, 15 and 50 parts per billion over an hour respectively. Rural residents exposed to heightened levels of these toxic gases can over time develop neurological disorders that impair their memory and balance, cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and can affect their motor skills.
Respiratory problems are also common for people living near or working in factory farms. Harmful gases and particulate matter, including “nitrates, sulfates, soil, organic chemicals, dust, and liquid droplets,” get into the lungs of people in surrounding areas and causes severe damage. I mentioned that slaughterhouse workers commonly suffer from serious respiratory diseases, which holds true for people in the near vicinity of factory farms as well, particularly children as they take in 20-50% more air than adults. The closer children live to a factory farm, the greater their risk of asthma. 46% of children living on hog farms suffer from asthma, and this figure rises to 55% on farms that use antibiotics to hasten animal growth. Over time, absorbing these particles can lead to impaired lung function and even cardiac arrest.
46% of children living on hog farms suffer from asthma, and this figure rises to 55% on farms that use antibiotics to hasten animal growth.
"Slaughterhouse workers have one of the most physically, mentally and emotionally dangerous jobs in existence, working in unsanitary, unsafe conditions and doing profoundly traumatizing work."
Bacterial infections are also of grave concern. If you live in Ontario, you may remember the E.coli disaster in the small town of Walkerton in 2000. The town had a population of only 5,000 at the time. Seven people died as a result of the contamination, and 2,300 people fell sick, being treated for bloody diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and fever. Cattle manure containing the bacteria washed into the town well after heavy rains, and their faulty treatment plant did not manage to kill the bacteria before it reached local households. Other CAFO-related bacteria that can cause illness and death are campylobacter and cryptosporidium. A 1993 outbreak of cryptosporidium in Milwaukee killed 104 people and caused 403,000 other people to fall ill.
As if that weren’t enough, antibiotic resistance may be one of the scariest implications for public health coming out of the animal agriculture industry.
If you’re looking for a good horror film, check out the documentary Resistance on Netflix. We are currently breeding deadly strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria faster than we can keep up with them. The animal agriculture industry plays a major role in this, using antibiotics very liberally and intentionally to make livestock grow up to size as fast as possible. Why? Profits, of course! An astonishing 2 million Americans each year suffer from antibiotic-resistant infections and at least 23,000 of these cases prove fatal. Ingesting foodborne pathogens by eating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat and fish products or by drinking water from contaminated waterways accounts for a sizable 22% of those cases.
Nitrate levels in water contaminated by factory farms can also lead to birth defects, miscarriages, and even infant death. Drinking water with nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per litre can cause “blue baby” syndrome, which impedes oxygen flow in infant blood streams. This has been tentatively linked to “increased rates of stomach cancer, birth defects, miscarriage, leukemia, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, reduced body growth and slower reflexes, and increased thyroid size.”
"Affected community members often can’t move away because as soon as a factory farm moves into the area, their property values plummet."
In terms of potential health risks, we haven’t even scratched the surface. Cruelly concentrating animals into close quarters and using unnatural methods to grow them up to size as quickly as possible for slaughter is both inhumane and extremely hazardous for communities and environments surrounding these factory farms.
The worst part of all? Affected community members often can’t move away because as soon as a factory farm moves into the area, their property values plummet. One study found that community members across Iowa saw their property values decrease “40% within a half-mile; 30% within one mile; 20% within one and a half miles; and 10% within two miles.” Their options are to stay and endure, or, if they can afford it, to sell their home for a fraction of its value. This can also be an environmental justice issue as poorer communities and communities of colour are often targeted as areas suitable for these operations. Is it any wonder that communities have been coming together to protest the construction of new factory farms?
One of the arguments often levied at vegans is that they care only for the animals.
What about humans?
I hope this article makes clear that animal agriculture affects us all, either by destroying the environment and contributing to climate change, or by directly sickening us by contaminating our water, our air, and infecting us with strains of bacteria that our antibiotics can no longer treat. Is this a price we’re willing to pay for cheap meat?
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