Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms Threatens Public Health

Factory farms -- giant livestock farms also known as feedlots that house thousands of cows, chickens or pigs -- produce staggering amounts of animal wastes. As a new NRDC report shows, the way these wastes are stored and used has profound effects on human health and the environment.

On most factory farms, animals are crowded into relatively small areas; their manure and urine are funneled into massive waste lagoons. These cesspools often break, leak or overflow, sending dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution and drug-resistant bacteria into water supplies. Factory-farm lagoons also emit toxic gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. What's more, the farms often spray the manure onto land, ostensibly as fertilizer -- these "sprayfields" bring still more of these harmful substances into our air and water.

Yet in spite of the huge amounts of animal wastes that factory farms produce, they have largely escaped pollution regulations; loopholes in the law and weak enforcement share the blame. Legal action by NRDC led the Environmental Protection Agency to propose new federal standards for factory-farm pollution (the first update since 1976), but they are not strong enough. And states need to step in with strict controls of their own.

Threats to human health People who live near or work at factory farms breathe in hundreds of gases, which are formed as manure decomposes. The stench can be unbearable, but worse still, the gases contain many harmful chemicals. For instance, one gas released by the lagoons, hydrogen sulfide, is dangerous even at low levels. Its effects -- which are irreversible -- range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death. Other health effects associated with the gases from factory farms include headaches, shortness of breath, wheezing, excessive coughing and diarrhea.

Animal waste also contaminates drinking water supplies. For example, nitrates often seep from lagoons and sprayfields into groundwater. Drinking water contaminated with nitrates can increase the risk of blue baby syndrome, which can cause deaths in infants. High levels of nitrates in drinking water near hog factories have also been linked to spontaneous abortions. Several disease outbreaks related to drinking water have been traced to bacteria and viruses from waste.

On top of this, the widespread use of antibiotics also poses dangers. Large-scale animal factories often give animals antibiotics to promote growth, or to compensate for illness resulting from crowded conditions. These antibiotics are entering the environment and the food chain, contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and making it harder to treat human diseases.

Threats to the natural environment The natural environment also suffers in many ways from factory-farming practices. Sometimes the damage is sudden and catastrophic, as when a ruptured lagoon causes a massive fish kill. At other times, it is cumulative -- for example, when manure is repeatedly overapplied, it runs off the land and accumulates as nutrient pollution in waterways.

Either way, the effects are severe. For instance, water quality across the country is threatened by phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients present in animal wastes. In excessive amounts, nutrients often cause an explosion of algae that robs water of oxygen, killing aquatic life. One such algae type, Pfiesteria piscicida, has been implicated in the death of more than one billion fish in coastal waters in North Carolina.

Manure can also contain traces of salt and heavy metals, which can end up in bodies of water and accumulate in the sediment, concentrating as they move up the food chain. And lagoons not only pollute groundwater; they also deplete it. Many factory farms use groundwater for cleaning, cooling and providing drinking water.

Lagoons and sprayfields: Waste lagoons and manure sprayfields -- two widespread and environmentally hazardous technologies -- are poorly regulated.

Some people hear the word "lagoon" and picture blue water, surrounded by palm trees, perhaps, or with mountains in the background. A visit to a factory farm would quickly erase this beautiful image from their minds.

At factory farms, "lagoon" means an open-air pit filled with urine and manure. Lots of urine and manure -- some lagoons are larger than seven acres and contain as much as 20 to 45 million gallons of wastewater. The waste is collected with scrapers, flushing systems, or gravity flow gutters, and then stored in lagoons. Opportunities for disaster abound. The lagoons can leak or rupture, for instance, or they can be filled too high. But even if none of these problems occur, the lagoons still release gases. Their horrible stench and toxic chemicals harm workers and nearby residents.

Sprayfields are yet another threat. Manure is periodically pumped out of lagoons and sprayed on fields. Although manure can be an excellent fertilizer when it is applied at rates that crops can absorb, it must be safely -- and sensibly -- applied. But factory farms produce far more manure than their land requires, and they often overapply it to fields, causing it to run off the fields and into rivers and streams. Farmers may also spray when it is rainy or windy, or with little regard for adjacent property. In addition, the act of spraying wastes increases evaporation and vaporization of pollutants.

Better alternatives exist: Practical remedies to these problems do exist. But implementing them will require some important changes in factory farm practices and government oversight:

Regulation and accountability. Factory farms are industrial facilities and should be regulated accordingly. They should be required to obtain permits, monitor water quality and pay for cleaning up and disposing of their wastes.

Public awareness and participation. State governments and the U.S. EPA should implement a tracking system for fish-kill and manure-spill data. Local governments and residents must have a say in whether to allow factory farms in their communities, and they should be armed with this information.

New technology. Factory-farm technology standards, unchanged since 1976, must be strengthened. The EPA's proposed new national standards must be made stricter and include bans on new manure lagoons and on aerial spraying.

Alternative farming practices. States and the federal government should promote methods of raising livestock that reduce the concentration of animals and use manure safely. Many alternative methods exist; they rely on keeping animal waste drier, which limits problems with spills, runoff and air pollution.

Pollution-reduction programs for small feedlots. Voluntary programs must be expanded to encourage smaller factory farms, which fall outside of the regulations for industrial facilities, to improve their management practices and take advantage of available technical assistance and other resources.

Consumer pressure. Individuals can help stop factory farm pollution by supporting livestock farms that use sustainable practices. In the grocery store, this means checking meat labels for "free range," "antibiotic-free," or similar wording, which indicates meat raised in a more sustainable manner. Many sustainable livestock farms also sell directly to consumers or through local farmers' markets. (See the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's New Consumer Guide for Meat Raised Without Antibiotics.

Based on CESSPOOLS OF SHAME: How Factory Farm Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Environmental and Public Health, a July 2001 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Water Network.

Related NRDC Pages: Facts about Pollution from Factory Farms: