Polluting Pigs Hit Again Over Air Emissions in Iowa

polluting pigs air emissions

Story at-a-glance -

  • Four northeast Iowa residents are suing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over noxious air emissions being released by local concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)
  • The area is home to CAFOs raising some 25,000 pigs all within 5 miles of an elementary school
  • In Iowa, pigs spend their lives living on slatted floors, allowing waste to drop through into storage pits below; if left as is, the resulting fumes would kill the animals, so the CAFOs use fans to blow the toxic air out of the building — and into the surrounding communities
  • Children with larger exposures to CAFOs have a significantly higher risk of being prescribed medication for wheezing or being diagnosed with asthma
  • CAFOs are also breeding grounds for disease; another pig virus, the porcine deltacoronavirus (PDCoV), first identified in Hong Kong in 2012, has recently been shown to have the potential to leap to humans

By Dr. Mercola

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which pack thousands of animals into tight spaces, continue to wreak havoc on the environment, including the residents who live near them. Imagine settling into an idyllic country locale only to have a polluting pig CAFO move in next door. It's the American Dream turned nightmare for many, including some residents who have lived on the land for generations.

CAFOs pose problems on numerous fronts, from tainting water supplies to spraying so much manure onto nearby fields that neighboring homes are covered in a film of manure — as evidenced by the presence of pig manure DNA on exterior walls. Air pollution is another major problem, such that some residents suffer from bouts of vomiting, nausea, and irritation to their eyes and lungs because the smell of manure and ammonia gets so bad outside.

Living near a CAFO can be like being held prisoner in your home, unable to go outside because the air has been tainted. Little by little, however, residents are fighting back — and winning. In one of the latest cases, Iowa residents are suing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over noxious air emissions being released by local CAFOs.

Four Iowa Residents Sue State, Ask for Regulation of CAFO Air Emissions

In December 2017, four residents of northeast Iowa petitioned the state's DNR, asking them to regulate emissions from CAFOs. While Iowa code requires CAFOs to retain its manure prior to disposal, the petition noted that the CAFOs are venting manure-laden air into the surrounding environment 24/7:1

"The gasses hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane, antibiotic-resistant organisms, volatile organic compounds and particulate are discharged out of hog confinement air vents/blowers. This is, and has been, known through the literature and research studies for many years and is an accepted fact. These are constituent parts of the waste as the waste breaks down in an anaerobic environment."

The petition cited research by Jillian Fry of Johns Hopkins University, which noted the health and environmental risks posed by CAFOs and the inability of state agencies to address the related public health concerns.2 According to the petition:3

"In addition to posing respiratory health risks to those residing near operations due to emissions that include hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, endotoxins, ammonia, allergens and volatile organic compounds, odor generated by IFAP [industrial food animal production] operations and spray fields has been associated with a broad range of health problems.

Public access to information regarding hazardous airborne releases from IFAP operations is hindered due to exemptions in federal laws that require disclosure of such releases, despite research linking chronic exposure to odors from IFAP to headaches, nausea, upset stomach, mood disorders, high blood pressure, and sleep problems. Additionally, there is growing evidence that livestock can transmit methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to humans."

The DNR had 60 days to respond to the petition — but didn't. The next step for the residents was to file a lawsuit asking for regulation of the emissions, in particular because the area is now home to CAFOs raising some 25,000 pigs all within 5 miles of an elementary school.

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Why CAFOs Are Toxic Air Polluters

In some states, like North Carolina, animal feces from CAFOs are stored in open-air, often unlined lagoons and disposed of by spraying onto nearby fields. The liquefied waste often leaches into groundwater and wells, poisoning drinking water, and runs off into waterways, where the excess nutrients lead to algae overgrowth that depletes the water of oxygen and kills fish and other marine life.

In addition, when manure is applied to fields, ammonia can volatize into the air at the time of application, whereas additional emissions can be released later as the soil breaks down. In Iowa, however, pigs spend their lives living on slatted floors, which is not only painful for their feet but also allows waste to drop through into storage pits below. If left as is, the resulting fumes would kill the animals, so the CAFOs use fans to blow the toxic air out of the building — and into the surrounding communities.

When a chicken CAFO in Kentucky was monitored for one year, more than 10 tons of ammonia were emitted into the air.4 Ammonia, which is formed when microbes digest nitrogen in manure, has a pungent odor and can lead to chemical burns, cough and chronic lung disease. Other toxic compounds commonly released by CAFOs include:5

  • Hydrogen sulfide, which has a rotten egg odor and can cause inflammation of eye and respiratory tract membranes, loss of olfactory neurons and even death
  • Methane, an odorless but highly flammable greenhouse gas
  • Particulate matter, including particles from feed, bedding, dry manure, soil, animal dander and feathers, which can cause chronic bronchitis and respiratory symptoms, declines in lung function and organic dust toxic syndrome, a severe flu-like illness

Living Near a CAFO Puts Children's Health at Risk

While Iowa regulates CAFO manure in liquid form, this doesn't cover the manure particles found in CAFO air emissions, which aren't regulated. For children, living near the state's many CAFOs (Iowa is the largest pig producer in the U.S., followed by North Carolina and Minnesota6) can pose serious health consequences. Iowa teacher Birgitta Meade, who smells hog waste regularly at the school where she teaches, told Civil Eats:7

"The ammonia is sharp — you kind of feel it in the top of your nose and your throat, and it can give you a headache if you breathe in too much — whereas the hydrogen sulfide, you feel more on your tongue and in your lungs … I have concerns about our youngest children, the pre-kindergarteners … Their lungs are little, and they breathe faster than adults; I worry about their exposure."

She's right to be concerned, as a number of studies have looked into the effects of CAFO air emissions on schools and children's health, with disturbing findings. In a report on CAFO impacts on communities, the National Association of Local Boards of Health noted, "While all community members are at risk from lowered air quality, children take in 20 to 50 percent more air than adults, making them more susceptible to lung disease and health effects."8

"Researchers in North Carolina found that the closer children live to a CAFO, the greater the risk of asthma symptoms," the report continued. "Of the 226 schools that were included in the study, 26 percent stated that there were noticeable odors from CAFOs outdoors, while 8 percent stated they experience odors from CAFOs inside the schools. Schools that were closer to CAFOs were often attended by students of lower socioeconomic status."9

Research further shows that children with larger exposures to CAFOs have a significantly higher risk of being prescribed medication for wheezing or being diagnosed with asthma.10 Exposure to airborne pollution from pig CAFOs is also associated with an increase in adolescents' wheezing symptoms.11

And as the National Association of Local Boards of Health noted, it's an issue of environmental justice, too, as CAFOs are most often located in low-income minority communities, and a political one as well. Writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers explained:12

"A 2013 report revealed that despite the highly localized health impacts associated with CAFOs, local and state health departments generally do not have jurisdiction over them; instead, that responsibility is typically held by state environmental or natural resource agencies. Jillian Fry, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future who was lead author on that report, says, 'The agencies responsible for regulating CAFOs — their mission is not to protect human health.'"

Judge Reduces Smithfield CAFO Verdict

In April 2018, a federal jury ruled in the favor of North Carolina residents who live near the Kinlaw hog farm, a 14,000-animal facility, in Bladen County. They were awarded a collective $750,000 in compensation plus another $50 million in damages as part of a nuisance lawsuit against Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer. The suit claimed the operations and manure lagoons were harming residents' health and lowering property values.

The favorable verdict gave hope to the many other communities rallying against the damages caused by industrial agriculture, particularly since Smithfield and other meat producers wield incredible lobbying power, making nuisance lawsuits historically difficult to win.

Unfortunately, about a week after the ruling, a federal judge called upon a North Carolina law that limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater. As a result, damages in the suit were reduced to $3.25 million, which means the plaintiffs, who were set to receive $5 million in compensatory damages, will each receive $325,000 instead.

"There's no way $325,000 is going to fix [the NC plaintiffs'] situation or allow them to relocate somewhere else," Bob Watson, a plaintiff in the Iowa lawsuit, told Civil Eats, adding that this scenario "makes our lawsuit that much more important, because we're going after the regulatory process [itself]."13 The North Carolina lawsuit is the first of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown; the next is scheduled to go on trial in June 2018.14

Viruses May Jump From CAFO Animals to Humans

Beyond pollution, CAFOs pose serious threats of spreading diseases to humans. An outbreak of one of the world's most dangerous viruses, Nipah virus, started on crowded pig farms in 1998 in Kampung Sungai Nipah, Malaysia, and ended up devastating the farming town, where close to 1 in 3 families lost loved ones.15 The virus, now considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be among those most likely to cause a global pandemic, can cause a respiratory syndrome or fatal encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).16

It was eventually discovered that fruit bats are the natural host of Nipah virus, but pigs were the intermediate hosts in the Malaysian outbreak. The fact that millions of pigs were being raised in close quarters, in unhealthy conditions, was what allowed the virus to take hold and spread quickly. Another pig virus, the porcine deltacoronavirus (PDCoV), first identified in Hong Kong in 2012, has also recently been shown to have the potential to leap to humans.

The sometimes-fatal virus causes diarrhea and vomiting in pigs, and researchers revealed it has the potential to be transmitted between species, including to humans.17 "We're very concerned about emerging coronaviruses and worry about the harm they can do to animals and their potential to jump to humans," senior study author Linda Saif, an investigator in Ohio State's food animal health research program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), said in a press release.18

CAFOs Are Cesspools That Breed Antibiotic Resistance and Disease

It's not only viruses that may spread via CAFOs. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can cause deadly infections of the skin, blood and lungs, was first discovered in pigs and pig farm workers in the Netherlands in 2004.

Since then, this livestock MRSA strain has spread across Europe, Canada and the U.S., causing both mild and life-threatening infections. In 2015, research published in Clinical Infectious Diseases revealed that current workers at pig farms are six times more likely to carry multidrug-resistant MRSA than those without exposure to CAFO pigs.19

They also observed active infections caused by livestock-associated Staphylococcus aureus (LA-SA). Worse still, aerosolized MRSA has been detected in the air inside and downwind of a pig CAFO, as well as in animal feed.20 Also revealing, people who have close proximity to pig CAFOs and areas where CAFO pig manure is applied to crop fields are more likely to be infected with MRSA, adding to the "growing concern about the potential public health impacts of high-density livestock production."21

Writing in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution, professor James Hollenbeck of Indiana University Southeast pointed out that CAFOs' role in emerging infectious diseases must be taken seriously:22

"The challenge of the future is recognizing the potential which the health effects of CAFOs may have on human health centers. One probable cause of the 1918 influenza pandemic has been traced back to a single soldier near present day Ft. Riley, Kansas, cleaning the pig pens one spring day. Since that day, we have recorded a number of pandemics linked to swine and birds. With the expansion of CAFOs … the threat continues.

The water run-off and odors have been exhaustively studied, yet the potential viral load in airborne particulates has been ignored. The massive populations of animals should force researchers to move beyond odor based studies to that of one encompassing research of composition and potential health risks to humans …

The best defense against another pandemic of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs) is the constant monitoring of the livestock and handlers of CAFOs and the live animal markets. These are the most likely epicenter of the next pandemic."

The simplest solution to the complex problems created by CAFOs is to turn away from the CAFO model entirely and toward the much more sustainable, humane and healthier grass fed model. I encourage you to avoid CAFO meats and instead either buy your meat direct from a trusted grass fed farm or look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, a much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed meat and dairy.23