by Jim Lundstrom

A factory dairy near Phoenix, AZ

Professor Robert Lawrence is in a select company of researchers.

“I think the only other group of scientists who probably are more frustrated than we are are the climate scientists,” Lawrence said in a recent telephone call.

Lawrence is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore, Md., where he also holds the title of the Center for a Livable Future Professor in Environmental Health Sciences Professor, Departments of Environmental Health Sciences, Health Policy and Management, and International Health Director. The Center’s mission is to engage “in research, policy analysis, education, advocacy and other activities guided by an ecologic perspective that diet, food production, the environment, and public health are interwoven elements of a single complex system.”

The reason for the phone call was a March 27 letter Lawrence and five colleagues sent to the group Kewaunee Cares regarding health and environmental concerns of manure from intensive livestock operations.

The letter began:  “We are writing to present some of the concerns associated with the generation and management of manure from intensive livestock operations, particularly regarding the health of Wisconsin’s rural citizens. These health and environmental concerns include:

• The spread of infectious disease, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to nearby communities.

• Groundwater and surface water pollution, and associated health and ecological impacts.

• Air pollution, odors, and associated health and social impacts.

The letter included 67 citations of peer-reviewed scientific literature.

The reason for Lawrence’s scientific frustration is that despite a growing body of evidence that shows the environmental and health consequences of intensive livestock operations, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) continue to pop up on the landscape.

In Kewaunee County, where cows outnumber humans by more than three to one, and where the porous karst topography cannot possibly support the massive amounts of animal waste that the industrial farms produce, citizens have been fighting an uphill battle to have their concerns heard.

“Yes, it is frustrating,” Lawrence said. “You go up against very politically powerful, influential groups whose vested interests are in discrediting the data or offering counter arguments of economic necessity, or it will kill jobs if you abide by the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Acts, dozens of different arguments that I’ve seen.

“The argument that is embedded in almost every state law in every agricultural state in the country, odors and smells are just part of the reality of producing food,” Lawrence continued. “Many of those laws were passed way, way back before we had the intense concentration that we now see. Yes, indeed, if you had a dairy farmer pulling his manure spreader over 40 or 50 acres of cropland, getting ready for spring plowing, and for a day or two there was an odor of manure in the air, people understood that went with the territory. But that argument no longer applies in my view when you have the intensity of air and water and soil pollution hat leads to a real precipitous decline in quality of life.”

With so many people removed from the rural landscape, Lawrence said it’s hard to generate interest in rural issues.

“That’s one of the things people find difficult to understand if they haven’t been involved in agriculture, how something in appropriate doses is an important and often pivotal part of maintaining soil health and productivity but in high concentration can became a toxin and a dangerous substance,” he said.

Lawrence has seen these industrial farms, be they cows, chickens or pigs, cause the same kinds of problems throughout the country, and the pattern repeats itself time and again – rural areas with little political clout find themselves knee deep in manure and other problems associated with hundreds or thousands of animals in close quarters.

“We have increasing evidence of the intense concentrations of poultry operations on the eastern shores of Maryland and Delaware and Virginia, and the unhealthy nature of the Chesapeake Bay with large dead zones every summer and the decline of the oyster and crabbing industry,” Lawrence said. “People are beginning to put it all together.

“The most notorious is probably Duplin County in Eastern North Carolina, which is historically predominantly a black community with little political power,” he said. “It has the highest ratio of hogs to people of anywhere in the country, beating even Iowa. We saw abuses that include violating state laws prohibiting spraying down the open cesspit waste onto fields during rain. I was there five years ago with the PEW Commission on Industrial Animal Food Production. It was raining and, lo and behold, this big pump sprayer was shooting out streams of waste on the cornfields. When the wind blows, that liquid waste hits the cars of people living next to the spray field and splatters on the walls of their houses.”

But all is not gloom and doom, Lawrence points out, for there have been some major victories for opponents of factory farms, particularly by the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), which last year assisted in a campaign to close a nearly constructed factory dairy farm in Illinois and a Colorado egg factory farm that had been making residents ill.

Lawrence mentions that some of his colleagues at John Hopkins did a study at the request of a cherry orchard owner in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

“The cherry orchard has been in her family for several generations,” he said.

Then a factory dairy farm opened nearby.

“Dried manure was blowing as dust. The cherries and leaves of the tree had a fine brown dust coat,” Lawrence said. “She asked for some help and we sent a team out there. They did very specific testing for the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as collecting dust samples and using GIS maps to pinpoint people and kids suffering from asthma. They found very, very persuasive evidence that the closer you live to one of these dairies, the higher the incidence of asthma and the more likely the dust in your house would contain fomites of dried manure that include animal dander from the animals themselves – skin and hair and so forth. That was a pretty damning set of data that was presented, but it was not until several years later high levels of nitrates were found in the drinking water and people began to pay attention.”

NASA Maps Ammonia Pollution 

The day after the March 27 letter on industrial farming from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, a NASA-funded study was released saying, “ammonia pollution from agricultural sources poses larger health costs than previously estimated.”

Harvard University researchers Fabien Paulot and Daniel Jacob used computer models including a NASA model of chemical reactions in the atmosphere to better represent how ammonia interacts in the atmosphere to form harmful particulate matter.

Manure from livestock and fertilizer for crops release ammonia to the atmosphere. In the air, ammonia mixes with other emissions to form microscopic airborne particles, or particulates. The particulates that pose the greatest health risk are those that measure no more than 2.5 micrometers across, or about 1/30 the width of a human hair, which when inhaled can become lodged deep within the lungs. Long-term exposure has been linked to heart and lung diseases and even death. As such, the particles are on the list of six common air pollutants regulated by EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

An increase in ammonia, however, does not translate to an equal increase in particulates. The relationship depends on meteorology as well as the concentration of other precursors to particulate formation, such as sulfate and nitric acid.

The impact is not equal everywhere. Areas downwind of large agricultural regions often set the stage for more mixing of ammonia with man-made emissions from combustion, such as from traffic and power plants. More mixing means the formation of more fine particulate matter. For this reason, the largest health costs are most often carried by the more populated states in the Northeast and Great Lakes region.

NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns.

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