It’s no longer news that the industrial scale meat production in the United States is fraught with problems. In addition to contributing to antibiotic resistance, which is a sufficient wake-up call by itself, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) bring to the forefront difficult policy and ethical considerations. Many carnivores enjoy their meaty meals, but the end-of-the-day reckoning is not always easy. Tom Philpott aptly summed up the dilemma when he said:
Every day, Americans eat more than a half pound of meat per capita — one of the highest rates on the planet. The vast majority of it is produced with methods that abuse the environment, animals, workers, and public health as a matter of course. The handful of companies that dominate U.S. meat production suck in more than 40 percent of the corn grown by our farmers — that’s more than 15 percent of the corn grown worldwide. Industrial corn, of course, is our most ecologically destructive crop.
But, as the late-night infomercial goes, there’s more.
New data recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonprofit non partisan organization dedicated to the enforcement of the nation’s anti-pollution laws, shows that the air around the CAFOs studied “may be unsafe, with levels of particulate matter, ammonia, or hydrogen sulfide at many sites [being] well above federal health-based standards.”
In short, as EIP notes, CAFOs pollute on an industrial scale yet have escaped most air pollution regulations that apply to other large emitters.
The EPA data was the result of a backroom deal crafted by the Bush Administration in 2005 where factory farm industries were offered years of amnesty from enforcement of the Clean Air Act and other pollution laws in exchange for an industry-funded study of factory farm emissions. Purdue University, funded by industry, conducted two years of air quality monitoring at 15 livestock confinement sites, 9 livestock waste lagoons and a dairy corral in 9 states. EPA approved Purdue’s methods and supervised the study and EIP analyzed these initial reports, comparing CAFOs air pollution with established health standards and emissions reporting rules.
The pollutants emitted are not something to be dismissed lightly.
The EIP reports that, ammonia, for example, is a respiratory and eye irritant that can cause numerous symptoms raging from mild cough and sore throat to inflammation, burns, and at very high concentration, death. Particulates may decrease lung function, worsen asthma and respiratory symptoms and increase risk of heart attacks and premature death as they lodge in the lung tissue. Hydrogen sulfide gas, much like ammonia, causes respiratory and eye irritation, and at increased levels, can also cause nervous system effects, unconsciousness, long-term neurological symptoms and death.
The EIP’s analysis is unsettling, and despite certain data and reporting problems from Purdue University (EIP notes that Purdue’s analysis “likely underestimates” pollution), it is evident that CAFOs should not have carte blanche when it comes to emissions.