Expert Panel Highlights Threats to Public Health and Environment from Industrial Animal Agriculture Wastes

Expert Panel Highlights Threats to Public Health and Environment from Industrial Animal Agriculture Wastes

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers lifting a requirement that industrial farming facilities report their toxic gas emissions, a panel of experts today told Congress that the vast amounts of animal waste and byproducts from such facilities pose significant risks to human health and the environment, requiring greater – not lesser – scrutiny.

Members of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) said the traditional methods used to dispose of animal waste are often insufficient to deal with the amount of waste generated by the high-volume industrial facilities that today produce food products for much of the nation.  The waste run-off from these facilities can contaminate groundwater and drinking water supplies, and the toxic gas emissions can be harmful – and even fatal – to farm workers and surrounding communities.

As the production of meat, poultry, milk and eggs has become more concentrated, so too have the by-products of that production. Industrial food animal production (IFAP) facilities often house thousands to tens of thousands of animals in confined areas, producing large quantities of concentrated fecal matter and other wastes.  The hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure from dairy cows and pigs are often stored in liquid form and held in large tanks or outdoor lagoons, until it can be sprayed or spread onto nearby fields, or pumped into the ground.

If left to the age-old methods of disposal, these extremely concentrated wastes can quickly overwhelm the ecosystem's ability to deal with them, resulting in severe environmental degradation.  The nitrogen that is naturally found in animal wastes can, in the proper amounts, serve as an effective fertilizer.  But in the excessive quantities generated in IFAP conditions, nitrogen can lead to ground and surface water contamination and ecosystem depletion.  Today, over a million people are estimated to take their drinking water from groundwater showing moderate or severe contamination with nitrogen-containing pollutants stemming in part from high rates of application of animal waste.

Conditions and waste management methods common to IFAP facilities can also produce emissions of harmful gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Many of these compounds are known to be toxic to the nervous system in sufficient concentration, and can cause respiratory symptoms, disease and impaired function.  Releases of toxic fumes resulting from certain waste disposal practices can prove fatal. The Dayton Daily News reported in 2003 that at least 24 people in the Midwest have died from inhaling hydrogen sulfide and methane from manure since the 1970s. Studies of residents living near IFAP facilities have documented increased rates of neurobehavioral and neuropsychiatric abnormalities.

Moreover, the Commissioners explained, animal wastes are known to be a primary source of “zoonotic” pathogens – disease-carrying microbes that pass between humans and animals -- that can lead to disease outbreaks.  Such pathogens include E.coli O157:H7, and Cryptosporidium.   In one recent example, farm animal run-off from IFAP facilities was among the suspected causes of a 2006 E. coli outbreak in which 6 people died and more than 250 were sickened.

Monitoring is a basic component of strategies to protect the public from harmful effects resulting from contamination or disease, yet monitoring systems in IFAP are inadequate – a situation that makes mandatory reporting of toxic emissions even more important.  For this reason, the Pew Commission expressed their concerns about the EPA proposal to lift reporting requirements on industrial farms in a February 26 letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

“Clearly we must balance the imperative of human and environmental health with an ever-growing consumer demand for safe, abundant animal-based food products,” said Commission Chairman John Carlin. “Through improved practices we can achieve both ends, but this means at a minimum not weakening the existing means of monitoring harmful emissions from IFAP operations.”

The Pew Commission was convened in 2005 to study the impacts of dramatic changes in animal agriculture in America over the past 40 years.  It is funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The decline of the family farm and the concentration of the industry into a relative few large corporations has meant greater efficiency and lowered costs for producers.  But this shift has also brought environmental, public health, and socioeconomic problems, such as the threats posed by poorly managed farm waste.  Today's event was part of a series of Capitol Hill issue briefings on these risks and challenges, and will culminate in the public release on April 29, 2008, of a set of recommendations to address them. The PCIFAP's  two-year study encompassed site visits to production facilities across the country, consultation with industry stakeholders, public health, medical, and agriculture experts, public meetings, and peer-reviewed technical reports.

The report is supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts.  The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

For more information visit the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Web site.