Impact of CAFOs on Air Pollution
Noxious odors are generally the first and probably most frequent concern of neighbors of CAFOs. A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that their concerns are well-founded. Proponents claim that odors are generally controlled, if not completely eliminated, through good management practices. Whenever new CAFOs are proposed, operators often promise to employ various strategies to mitigate odors and any associated health risks. While some of these strategies have been shown to be effective for some operations some of the time, odors have been a persistent and as yet unresolved problem for CAFOs. New technologies to control odors have been promised for decades, but have yet to be accepted as “economically feasible.”
Proponents claim that while odors from CAFOs may be an occasional nuisance, they are no different from other normal agricultural operations which emit dust particles and odors into the air.
In fact, the anaerobic process by which animal manure decomposes in the large manure pits and cesspools or lagoons associated with CAFOs is quite different from aerobic decomposition of manure in open fields. Chemical compounds associated with noxious odors from CAFOs include ammonia, nitrous oxide, and hydrogen sulfide, all of which can cause human health problems.
Particulate matter from CAFOs may lead to more severe health consequences for workers in CAFOs. They can develop acute and chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive airway disease, and interstitial lung disease. Occupational asthma, acute and chronic bronchitis, and organic dust toxic syndrome can be as high as 30% in factory farm workers. Other health effects of CAFO air emissions include headaches, respiratory problems, eye irritation, nausea, weakness, and chest tightness.2
Odors from CAFOs can be particularly detrimental to the health of children in the local community and in schools located near CAFOs. A 2010 study commissioned by the National Association of Local Boards of Health concluded: “While all community members are at risk from lowered air quality, children take in 20-50% more air than adults, making them more susceptible to lung disease and health effects.” Should be 3 The report cites other studies confirming that particulate matter and suspended dust from CAFOs are linked to asthma and bronchitis. “Smaller particles can actually be absorbed by the body and can have systemic effects, including cardiac arrest… and decreased lung function.” Ammonia from CAFOs can be rapidly absorbed by the upper airways, resulting in severe coughing and mucous build-up, even scarring of the airways.
The Sierra Club, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Humane Society of the U.S. have recently sued the EPA for failure to enforce the Clean Air Act (CAA) by regulating air emissions from CAFOs. Should be 4 Agriculture is currently exempt from the CAA. Hopefully, this case will bring to widespread public attention the compelling evidence that odors from CAFOs represent public health risks.
1) L Horrigan, R.S. Lawrence, & P Walker. How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(5), (2002) 445–456.
2) Steve Wing Research
3) Carrie Hribar, “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities,” Education and Training National Association of Local Boards of Health, page 5
4) Donnelle Eller, “Groups sue EPA over animal confinement air pollution,” Des Moines Register, Jan 28, 2015