Living near a factory farm may endanger your health

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The enterprises called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFO's have brought concerns for nearby residents about air and water pollution and a drop in property values.

In this file photo, hog farmer Robert Young, 68, walks past his hog barn while tending to his livestock on his family farm in Buckhart, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Plenty has been said about the harm that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) can cause to animals, but it bears remembering that factory farms pose health risks to the humans living near them, as well.

Because CAFOs pack enormous numbers of animals into fairly small spaces, which makes feeding and housing more efficient for the farmers or ranchers, there’s a larger amount of waste and pollution generated than would come from a traditional farm. For individuals and families living near the factory farm, that means potential contamination of water, air, or soil.

Commonly cited health risks include problems with respiration, due to inhaling various microbial products, ammonia, dust or other airborne substances, as well as illness from groundwater that’s contaminated by animal manure.

The rise of the CAFO

According to the EPA, a CAFO is characterized by animals that are “confined and fed or maintained for 45 or more days per year, and crops, vegetation, or forage growth are not sustained over a normal growing period.”

Food is brought to the animals, rather than allowing them to graze. The EPA also looks for manure or wastewater that comes into contact with surface water in order to label a farm a CAFO.

These factory farms have been growing exponentially over the last few decades. Between 1982 and 2002, for instance, the Government Accountability Office reported that the number of “large livestock operations” tripled.

A few years later, in 2010, the USDA reported that 40 percent of all farm animals raised in the U.S. came from factory farms; however, those CAFOs only represented 2 percent of the total number of livestock facilities in the U.S., highlighting the density of such operations.

A breath of not-so-fresh air

As CAFOs have proliferated, those living in the vicinity of such farms have reported numerous respiratory problems.

The National Institutes of Health published a study that outlined some of the common pollutants that hog and cattle factory farms release into the air. Those include:

  • Endotoxin
  • Ammonia
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Various volatile organic compounds

Researchers reported that people living near the farms faced health risks including “symptoms of pulmonary disease and lung function test result abnormalities.”

Similarly, the CDC conducted a comprehensive study of the environmental and health effects of CAFOs, showing that the decomposition of animal manure led to degraded air quality. Again, they pointed to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide as well as higher than normal levels of methane and particulate matter in the air.

While each substance comes with its own health risks, the most common problems described by the CDC were respiratory irritation, decline in lung function or chronic lung disease, inflammation or burns to the eyes and skin, asthma, and chronic coughing. They noted that children, because they take in more air than adults, may be particularly affected.

Young has built a 29,000-square-foot barn to house 3,600 hogs for Cargill, one of the nation's largest pork processors.

Robert Young, who has worked the farm as long as he can remember, is dealing with something his father could never have dreamed of _ neighbors clashing with neighbors over the size of farming operations, and the number of livestock being raised on site. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Polluted water

Health risks associated with living near CAFOs extend to the water supply, as well.

The EPA estimates that factory farms produce over a half a million tons of manure each year. If that was spread out over a large area, it might be plausible to dispose of the manure by using it as fertilizer, but the density of animals on these farms means that there’s almost always more waste than can be used or stored.

While farms have developed several different means of disposing of manure—including ground application, burying it, and transporting it off-site—all of those come with the risk that the manure will contaminate the either ground or surface water.

According to the CDC, ground application, which is one of the most common means of disposing of manure, can lead to nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals and fecal particulate matter entering the groundwater supply. An increase in any of those can lead to health problems: while elevated nitrates can lead to blue baby syndrome or death for infants, fecal particulate matter in water can cause a range of illnesses, such as giardia, in both children and adults.

Additionally, it’s extremely hard to contain or eliminate a contaminant once it has entered the groundwater.

Where are the CAFOs?

At this point, 48 states have factory farms, with certain areas much more tightly packed than others.

Texas, Iowa, California, Nebraska and Kansas are at the top of the list for total number of livestock units, meaning the combined number of cattle, hogs, and chickens on CAFOs.

Narrowing down, almost half of all factory farm dairy hens are in five states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, California and Pennsylvania. If you’re looking for chickens destined to be “broilers,” on the other hand, the states with the highest number of birds are Georgia, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

At the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Hawaii have the fewest number of overall livestock units.

Unsurprisingly, rural areas in the Midwest and southern California have a high concentration of CAFOs. If you live in one of those areas and are aware of factory farms in your vicinity, it may be wise to take health precautions.

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