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.
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