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Hidden in the Air: Factory Farming and Air Pollution

All around us is a part of the natural world we often take for granted: air. As the population has continued to rise, bringing with it increased human emissions, poor air quality has become the greatest global environmental health risk. Annually, around seven million deaths worldwide result from air pollution. According to recent research by the National Academy of Sciences, “Agricultural production in the United States results in 17,900 annual air quality–related deaths, 15,900 of which are from food production. Of those, 80% are attributable to animal-based foods, both directly from animal production and indirectly from growing animal feed.” Despite these mounting health risks, the connection between food production and the environment is largely ignored. 

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the source of 99 percent of meat, eggs, and dairy in the United States and 90 percent worldwide. This industry’s main goal is the cheap production of more products at a faster rate. This intent coupled with a lack of federal regulation (the EPA still does not set maximum pollutant levels for CAFOs) has allowed for the contamination of our air resulting in declining health and death. Animal waste from livestock along with the industrial model of farming in the US is the source of this pollution. In the United States, of 17,900 annual air quality-related deaths, 12,720 are attributable to animal-based foods, both directly from animal production and indirectly from growing animal feed.

Let’s take a closer look at how factory farming contributes to air pollution. On factory farms, animal waste is collected in large pits called “slurry lagoons.” Factoring in the thousands of animals present in a single farming operation these pits are filled with gallons of animal manure and excrement. This waste breaks down to form ammonia gas and breeds bacteria which may anaerobically produce hydrogen sulfide.

 The EPA estimates that nearly three-quarters of the country’s ammonia pollution comes from livestock facilities. Ammonia is an irritant causing chemical burns to the respiratory tract, skin, and eyes, severe cough, and chronic lung disease and at high doses can be toxic. Hydrogen sulfide can also be deadly and causes a multitude of symptoms including headaches, nausea, inflammation of the moist membranes of the eye and respiratory tract, and olfactory neuron loss. A top cause of this air pollution occurs when manure lagoons are stirred to re-suspend solid waste, releasing high concentrations of the gas into the air. 

Particulate matter and aerosols are also major contributors to negative health impacts and increased mortality rates. Particulate matter can be traced to dried manure, bedding materials, animal dander, and poultry feathers. This matter can directly cause respiratory disease including chronic bronchitis, chronic respiratory symptoms, declines in lung function, and organic dust toxic syndrome. As a result of the combination of ammonia from animal waste and fertilizer application with pollutants from combustion, aerosols are created. This is a collection of potentially harmful particulate matter that has been linked to increased risk for heart and pulmonary disease

Both farmworkers and surrounding communities are increasingly impacted by the direct air emissions of factory farms. Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable due to direct and prolonged exposure. They are often in the vicinity of concentrated forms of chemicals that can result in multiple respiratory diseases and death. Due to limited regulations, these effects are not confined to the factory farm. Communities near factory farms are met with the same exposures and ailments. Research has found that the closer children live to factory farms, the more likely they are to experience asthma symptoms. These risks are coupled with the lasting stench of the factories, which affects communities’ quality of life, preventing many individuals from even enjoying the outdoors and its benefits.
A first-of-its-kind study on meat production and pollution concluded that “dietary shifts toward more plant-based foods that maintain protein intake and other nutritional needs could reduce agricultural air quality-related mortality by 68 to 83%.” It is in our hands as consumers to make choices that affect the health of our nation and the world. Industrialized agriculture is the leading source of deadly pollution and causes thousands of deaths annually. Changing the way we eat can be the catalyst for improved health and cleaner air for all.

Eleanor Hurst is a High School Advocate with FFAC.