This video segment adapted from Earthkeeping: "Toxic Racism" looks at how pollution from an industrial hog farm impacts people who live near the farm. Learn about waste lagoons and other environmental hazards from animal feeding operations. Hear the story of how one hog farm has affected a community in North Carolina and how residents sued the farm for violations of the Clean Water Act. In addition, learn about how minority communities are unfairly affected by environmental issues.
In the business of industrial farming, animals are often raised in confined quarters. Cows, pigs, chickens, or other animals are restricted to small spaces, and since they do not graze or range, feed is brought to them. These types of farms, also known as animal feeding operations (AFOs), are a way to produce a high output of meat, milk, and eggs at minimal cost.
However, there are a number of potential human health impacts from the operation of AFOs. For example, antibiotics and pesticides are commonly used to keep disease and pests under control in crowded conditions. But widespread use of antibiotics promotes the development of drug-resistant pathogens, which can be hazardous to human health. And pesticides may potentially accumulate in the meat of the raised animals, as well as spread into the environment. There are a variety of potential health effects from exposure to pesticides, such as impacts to the endocrine and nervous systems and increased risk of cancer.
Waste from the animals is kept in cesspools called lagoons. The liquefied manure in lagoons is often applied to crops as fertilizer because manure is rich with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. However, because of the large concentration of animals, there is often more waste than can be used as fertilizer, and the farmer is forced to continue to store the excess. Although lagoons should be constructed with an impermeable liner to prevent the waste from polluting the environment, leaks and flooding can be a problem. Some farms, which have been designated as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, but most AFOs are unregulated.
People who live near AFOs may have to deal with unpleasant odors as well as more serious health issues caused by gases and particulate matter. Lagoons and spray fields emit pollutants such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, dust, and organic compounds. Residents near AFOs may suffer from a number of symptoms including headaches, eye and throat irritation, respiratory problems (such as bronchitis and asthma), nausea, depression, and fatigue.
Runoff from fields fertilized with manure and leakages from lagoons can pollute streams, rivers, and lakes and contaminate drinking water. Improper application of the fertilizer (such as spraying on saturated land, spraying in windy conditions, and overapplying) can exacerbate health risks.
Manure contains disease pathogens and may also contain antibiotics and pesticides that were used on the animals. People may become sick from direct contact with water contaminated by manure. In addition, high levels of nitrates from the wastes that get into drinking water can lead to methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder that can be fatal (especially for babies).
Studies have shown that AFOs have a disproportionate health impact on poor, nonwhite communities. For example, North Carolina is one of the leading hog-farming states in the United States and home to about 10 million hogs. The industry is located primarily in the southeastern region of the state, where coastal areas are prone to flooding. Statistical studies have shown that African Americans were more likely than whites to live in areas with flooded AFOs. In addition, these areas have high rates of poverty and often depend on wells for drinking water, which makes this population even more vulnerable to the health hazards from AFO pollution.
© 2014 PBS & WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.