March 12, 2014
You’ve probably heard that industrial food animal production (often called “factory farming”) is bad for you, the environment, and animal welfare. But have you ever thought about the people who live near the sites where thousands or hundreds of thousands of animals are kept? I’ve spoken to people who cannot open their windows or enjoy their property due to the stench (and toxic gases) in the air, and who sometimes cannot safely drink or bathe in their water due to contamination. Sometimes, depending on the direction of the wind, people find a layer of manure on their cars and homes after it’s sprayed on nearby fields. These conditions reduce residents’ quality of life—and threaten their health.
I attended a public meeting a few years ago in York County, Pennsylvania, where a community was debating the impacts of a proposed industrial-scale hog operation. In an attempt to convince others not to worry, a man in favor of the hog operation stated that if there were health impacts from the site, the health department would know and take action. As a public health researcher familiar with the situation in this community, I knew that was not true. But what about other parts of the country? Were health departments involved? And if health departments were not monitoring health threats elsewhere either, were members of other communities making the same false assumption? We weren’t able to find any studies that answered this question, so a small team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future decided to study whether health departments and other agencies are involved in responding to community concerns surrounding industrial animal production sites. We focused on eight states, and 13 counties in those states, with significant industrial animal production.
Health departments are supposed to monitor and respond to the health concerns of their residents, but when we talked to health department staff members, we heard the same message over and over: most of them are unable to take action when contacted by community members with health concerns about industrial animal production. But why? It turns out that a few factors play a role.
We reported in the first paper from the study that health departments have limited staff, and that their staff members are often not trained to recognize health threats from these sites. Also, we heard from many participants that political pressures also play a role. Finally, in most cases, they have no relevant regulations to enforce. Therefore, the most common response is to refer callers to the state agency responsible for regulating industrial animal production, usually an environment or natural resources agency (we call them permitting agencies). The problem is, these agencies also face significant barriers.
The second paper from our study, recently published in PLOS ONE, reveals that most permitting agencies we spoke to are hindered by narrow regulations, a lack of public health expertise, and limited resources. These agencies are given authority by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate these sites using the Clean Water Act (CWA), which is designed to reduce pollution released into U.S. waters. Unfortunately, there are many problems caused by industrial animal production that threaten public health and the environment that are not covered by the CWA (e.g., air pollution, manure runoff from fields caused by rain, overuse of antibiotics, and more).
It’s troubling that most regulatory agencies we spoke to are not only failing to actively monitor industrial animal production sites for health risks, but are generally unable to take meaningful action even when a concern is reported to them. This is a striking gap in basic public health protections, and sadly, rural communities suffer the consequences.
So, what can be done? From a policy standpoint, should we push for new federal regulations that address all of the negative consequences of industrial animal production? As much as I would like to see that happen, it is unlikely in the current political climate. But we can advocate for policy reforms at the local and state levels, including more collaboration between permitting agencies and health departments.
In addition, we can all vote with our forks. Eating less meat, seeking out responsible sources, or adopting a plant-based diet sends a message to corporations that consumers care about the mess these operations are causing in rural America. (If you don’t know where your meat comes from, it’s almost surely from industrial-scale operations.) Also, voting with your fork has an added benefit of improving your health.
Photo: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.