Environmentalists have long voiced concerns about confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. This increasingly commonplace method of raising a lot of livestock in a small space has been linked to serious detrimental health effects as well as soil and water contamination.
Today, Plains Justice, an environmental law center working on behalf of the public, released “Public Health and Livestock Confinements: Identifying Threats to Human Health.” Donna Wong-Gibbons, Ph.D., author of the report, calls it “a science-based review of some of the available research and literature on livestock confinements, specifically on the possible public health risks associated with those.” To request a copy of the report, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Wong-Gibbons by phone today. Our interview appears below. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: What can readers expect to find in the Plains Justice report?
WONG-GIBBONS: The report focuses partially on Iowa, although similar problems exist in other states where there are livestock confinements. It’s designed to be a plain-language document, so that the public, regulators, and legislators can all read it. It’s intended to help educate people about some of the potential public health problems with CAFOs.
Yet, it’s also designed to help educate people about some of the ways that those problems can be addressed. It’s important, when you’re talking about public health, to identify the problem, then to also look at solutions. So that’s what the report is trying to do.
This is not original research, but a review of some of the available research on this topic. It’s based on findings from a number of different sources, including a lot of independent researchers and organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. There’s much more research on the topic than what’s included in the report.
BPGL: What are the main areas of concern you identified in your review?
WONG-GIBBONS: We group those concerns into three general areas: air quality issues, water quality issues, and pathogens.
BPGL: Let’s start with air quality. Most people are aware of the presence of a strong odor of animal waste coming from CAFOs. Is that the primary concern with the issue of air quality?
WONG-GIBBONS: Yes and no. Some of the air quality issues described in the report relate to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which have strong odors. But odor is only part of the concern. These substances are also airway irritants that can cause respiratory problems. If you’re in a situation where you’re exposed to a high level of ammonia in the air, your eyes are going to water. Your throat is going to hurt. These are the biological and physiological signs that something is wrong — that these compounds are not good for you.
Particulate matter is also an issue with livestock confinements. This includes things such as dust, feathers, fecal matter, and fur. There is extensive research on associations between airborne particulate matter and respiratory problems or cardiovascular problems.
But as far as the irritation from ammonia and hydrogen sulfide — that’s essentially what you see in areas that are downwind or surrounding these facilities. There have also been documented respiratory problems in the people who work in these facilities — in livestock confinements — that are likely due to those exposures.
BPGL: Are certain people at special risk in the community near a CAFO?
WONG-GIBBONS: People at particular risk are people with any kind of respiratory problem that’s pre-existing, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Children are also particularly vulnerable, in part because babies’ lungs don’t fully develop until after they’re born. They are much more susceptible than adults to things that cause airway impairment.
A study in Iowa looked at the development of asthma in school children and found that it was higher in children who lived closer to a livestock confinement compared to other children. Of course, there are almost certainly other factors. Most diseases are complex physiological processes that have may have multiple causes or contributors. But the bottom line is, if you can remove something that you know to be harmful or potentially harmful, then you improve the likelihood that an individual is going to have a good health outcome.
BPGL: What are the water quality issues related to CAFOs?
WONG-GIBBONS: One of the concerns is contamination of both ground water and surface water with manure or animal waste. That’s a real problem, because not only does it introduce bacteria, but it also can introduce other chemicals and hormones into the waterways.
Iowa has a documented problem with waterway impairment. In April 2009, a Department of Natural Resources report listed 439 water bodies with a total of 581 impairments in Iowa. These impairments include things like bacteria, algae , and suspended sediment, and many of them can be linked back to manure spills.
Whether it’s an intentional spill, or whether it’s unintentional through equipment or storage facility failure, the end result is essentially untreated waste being dumped into waterways.
It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense from a basic, sort of commonsense, public health perspective. You don’t put waste into water that you’re going to then drink from.
There are also concerns over recreation. If our waterways don’t support fish — and some of them will not, for various reasons — if a river won’t support fish, then you potentially lose the recreational use of that waterway. And if a waterway is contaminated with bacteria, then it’s not really a safe waterway for kids or anyone to be swimming in — let alone drinking.
BPGL: I understand that arsenic is often added to poultry feed. That’s surely an issue that affects the environment and human health.
WONG-GIBBONS: Arsenic in poultry feed is used as a growth promoter, yet arsenic is highly toxic. It is implicated in several different types of cancers, can damage blood vessels, and can cause neurological problems in both children and adults, even at low levels of exposure. It has no beneficial use that I’m aware of. By feeding arsenic to chickens or to other poultry, essentially what we’re doing is artificially creating an exposure route (arsenic in poultry manure) to a dangerous chemical.
BPGL: Farmers who administer sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics say they do so to promote growth as well as to prevent the spread of infection in confined quarters. What did you discover about the link between overuse of antibiotics in animals and disease protection in humans?
WONG-GIBBONS: It’s actually kind of both – overuse and inappropriate (nontherapeutic) use. But to clarify, it’s not the amount of antibiotics that are used as much as it is the way in which they are used. The idea behind antibiotics is that they are used to treat and kill bacteria. But when you’re using antibiotics in a way that is not killing bacteria, then you’re creating a situation where bacteria can become resistant to the antibiotic. And so, the concern is that antibiotics are not being used in an appropriate therapeutic manner.
Medical practices have changed, and what we are seeing is more cautious use of antibiotics in people because many medical associations recognize that antibiotic resistance is a serious problem. And yet, antibiotic resistance is still a problem because there are still other sources of antibiotic resistance, such as CAFOs. What we’re potentially faced with is a situation where a child or an adult could be infected, and there’s not going to be an effective treatment. And that’s the real concern.
There’s another connection between animal health and human health, and that is pathogens, such as influenza. Researchers have expressed concerns for years that an influenza of mixed (swine/avian/human) origin could result in a pandemic, and that is exactly what has unfolded in 2009. We have been incredibly lucky that H1N1 (“swine flu”) mortality is relatively low and that the virus is not highly contagious. But the reality is that the scenario of a mixed genetic origin influenza pandemic unfolded as predicted/projected and could be deadly serious with a more virulent pathogen.
BPGL: Are you giving any cautionary statements to the public?
WONG-GIBBONS: The first step is just being aware of it. I think most people who don’t live close to a livestock confinement probably have no idea that these kinds of issues are out there. And people who are buying from grocery stores probably don’t understand the link between antibiotic resistance and current practices in livestock production. So, I think the first part of it is education — letting people know, letting legislators know, letting the public know what the risks are.
BPGL: Do you anticipate any backlash from Big Ag?
WONG-GIBBONS: I really don’t know. The purpose of the report is not to be accusatory or to point a finger. It’s more to identify a problem and then look at ways that it can potentially be addressed. That’s my hope. I don’t know what the response is going to be. What I think is the most important thing is that people are talking about it.
Public health affects all of us — everyone. Ideally, a situation would involve multiple parties as well — communities, regulators, farmers, and legislators. If people are looking at solutions, based on scientific research — and this is reflected in the report — there is a way for farmers to be profitable and for public health to be protected. To me, that’s a win/win situation, where everyone can benefit.
BPGL: We’ve had conversations with farmers who say the amount of animal fecal matter is far less than the amount of human fecal matter that is spilled through improper septic tank systems and city systems that are old and fail. One said, “Clean up your own mess before you come after farmers.”
WONG-GIBBONS: To me, that’s a shortsighted view. I don’t know whether the farmer’s data about fecal matter is correct, but I would be interested in the research that is available. But, if you’re talking about something that could potentially make the environment safer or make things safer for humans, then it doesn’t make sense to me, from a public health perspective, to not do that.
If human waste pollution is a problem, then absolutely, that is something that should be worked on as well. But to push it to the side and say that it’s okay to pollute waterways because someone else is doing it too, to me is just shortsighted.
I think it is so important to try to get away from the attitude that people who talk about these issues are somehow anti-farming. To me, the ideal situation is one where they can continue to be profitable and public health is less of a risk. That’s win/win, and that’s where we need to be going. It’s a long-term, big-picture view.
BPGL: You said the report has proposed solutions. Can you tell us a bit about them?
WONG-GIBBONS: As far as solutions go, these are answered in better detail on pages 12-13 of the report, but the basics are as follows:
Better control and monitoring can help eliminate air and water quality issues, as well as identifying when there is an issue that needs to be corrected.
The spread of pathogens, both bacteria and viruses, can be limited through simple handwashing and the use of personal protective equipment like gloves.
Eliminating arsenic and nontherapeutic antibiotics as growth promoters removes the threat that they pose. Data from Denmark and other countries shows no overall negative effect on food production as a result of eliminating these from food animal production. And, they demonstrated a reduction in antibiotic-resistant bacteria — further proof that it is possible to preserve both profit and health.
Donna Wong-Gibbons works for Plains Justice as a public health specialist. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and has post-doctoral training in molecular biology and epidemiology. She serves as the Executive Director for the Iowa chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is one of the organizations that has expressed concerns about the nontherapeutic of antibiotics in animals because of the risk it poses to human health.
“Plains Justice is a public interest environmental law center working for environmental justice and sustainable communities in the Northern Plains region of the U.S., including eastern Montana and Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. Our docket includes Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and energy policy work.
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