Factory Farms Pollute the Environment and Poison Drinking Water
By Daniel Ross
Hurricane Florence, which battered the U.S. East Coast last September, left a trail of ruin and destruction estimated to cost between $17 billion and $22 billion. Some of the damage was all too visible—smashed homes and livelihoods. But other damage was less so, like the long-term environmental impacts in North Carolina from hog waste that spilled out over large open-air lagoons saturated in the rains.
Hog waste can contain potentially dangerous pathogens, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. According to the state's Department of Environmental Quality, as of early October nearly 100 such lagoons were damaged, breached or were very close to being so, the effluent from which can seep into waterways and drinking water supplies.
Rather than an isolated problem, however, the story of North Carolina's failure to properly manage its hog waste opens a door to what critics say is a much wider national and global issue: the increasingly extensive and varied impacts on our water resources, air and soils from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
"The big problem with this model is the waste management problem that it creates, generating so much waste in such high concentration," said Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of organizations monitoring U.S. waterways. "We haven't really improved the technologies for managing this waste beyond what we were using centuries ago."
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
In recent decades, livestock numbers have soared in the U.S., while the number of actual farms has shrunk—a dynamic fueled in part by the government's acquiescence to industrial farming mega-mergers. In 2015, for example, just four companies accounted for 85 percent of the nation's beef packing industry. This has given rise to what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls CAFOs, livestock operations where animals—primarily cows, pigs and chickens—are kept and raised in confined spaces.
The amount of animal feces and urine produced in these facilities is staggering—more than 40 times the waste generated in wastewater treatment plants. Most CAFO waste is spread over farmland as fertilizer. But unlike strictly regulated human waste, the waste generated by CAFOs isn't held to the same standard and is largely untreated. "The basic legal theory, which is basic legal fiction, is that the waste will be kept on site and applied to adjacent cropland and [will] never enter our water-bodies," said Hendrick.
What actually happens is that potentially toxic chemicals, drugs and bacteria in untreated animal wastes drain off or leach through the soils, making their way into the nation's rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water at alarming rates, directly impacting communities. Iowa's largest municipal water utility provider, for example, recently sued a number of upstream drainage districts for excessive drinking water nitrate levels caused by farmland runoff. The lawsuit, however, was subsequently dismissed, the judge ruling it a problem for the state legislatures to tackle.
CAFO wastes are regulated to some extent. Under the Clean Water Act, for example, operators must file a nutrient management plan with their state environmental agencies. "Whether spread next to the CAFO or on neighboring fields, that manure spreading is done only after a careful analysis of both the manure itself and the land it's applied to. There are legal penalties attached to violating those plans," said Will Rodger, a spokesperson for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), in an email. The bureau is a powerful lobbying organization that has championed efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act.
Enforcement of these management plans, however, varies from state to state, said Tom Pelton, spokesperson for the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit environmental watchdog. "In reality, there's not much enforcement, and they're also difficult to enforce," he added.
Soil Oversaturated With Animal Manure
The prevalence of veterinary drug use in industrial farming, and the associated health risks when humans are exposed to these drugs, is another factor that critics highlight. Antibiotics, for example, make their way through the waste-streams at these facilities and out into the environment, leading to fears of increased antibiotic resistance in humans, not to mention their damaging impacts on sensitive ecosystems.
There's also the question of what to do with excess animal waste when the available agricultural land surrounding CAFOs is limited, leading to oversaturation of soils with animal manure. "There are still some states that have not banned applying this waste on frozen ground," said Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy organization that has called for an end to factory farms. "That's not about growing crops. That's about disposal."
Animal waste doesn't only impact valuable water resources. Industrial livestock production generates huge quantities of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, all national agricultural processes, including livestock production, accounted for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization pins the percentage share from livestock production on overall anthropogenic global greenhouse emissions much higher—at 14.5 percent.
Despite the fact that the EPA has long known about high levels of CAFO-produced air pollution, the agency is seeking to exempt these facilities from having to report toxic air emissions like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide under a federal right-to-know law, though a group of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit last year to halt that proposed rule.
Air quality issues from industrial farming can also be more locally felt. In North Carolina, for example, neighbors of a hog farm operated by Murphy-Brown filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the owners complaining of nuisance noises and odors, worsening their quality of life. Theirs was one of a number of lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, Murphy-Brown's parent company. The plaintiffs from that particular suit were recently awarded $473.5 million. But the state legislature also passed a law limiting the legal action that residents can now take against neighboring CAFOs.
More animals, of course, means that more crops must be grown to feed them, which leads to broader industrial farming impacts, including runoff from agricultural chemicals like those found in fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. What kinds of impacts do these chemicals have? A recent study out of New Zealand finds that certain bacteria develop antibiotic resistance up to 100,000 times faster when exposed to common herbicides like Roundup and Kamba. Agricultural runoff also helps feed harmful algae blooms.
According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of data from 2014 and 2015, the drinking water in 1,700 individual systems (affecting approximately 7 million people) contained nitrogen at levels higher than 5 parts per million (ppm), an amount the National Cancer Institute says increases the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers. The EWG also found that nearly 32,000 Americans received drinking water containing nitrogen at levels exceeding the EPA's threshold of 10 ppm—a limit set more than 55 years ago.
Nor is it cheap for consumers to filter out chemicals like nitrates themselves, explained Anne Weir Schechinger, EWG's senior economic analyst. As an example, the Iowan utility tackling elevated drinking water nitrate levels is reportedly spending $15 million to expand its filtration technology. "That's why we want to make sure our audience has more [information] resources so they can protect themselves if the EPA isn't going to," Weir Schechinger said, pointing to EWG's drinking water database.
The American Farm Bureau Federation disputes EWG's findings, and points to what it regards as "inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity" in drinking water. "We are not impressed with this effort, nor the quality of EWG's reports across the board," said Will Rodger in an email. In response, Weir Schechinger explained how for decades, "peer-reviewed studies have shown a clear link between an increased risk of cancer and nitrate levels in tap water that are lower than EPA's legal limit—and no amount of lobbying from special interest groups will change the science."
Indeed, the health risks associated with living in close proximity to CAFOs are becoming increasingly clearer. A recent study out of Duke University found that North Carolinians who live near hog farms have higher death rates from a variety of health issues—including anemia, kidney disease, septicemia, tuberculosis and infant mortality—compared to those who live further away from such facilities. And who are the people most affected? CAFOs disproportionately impact low-income rural communities, African Americans, Latino Americans and Native Americans.
What Can Be Done?
The regulatory framework exists—in federal laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act—to force CAFO operators to properly dispose of their waste, said Sacoby Wilson, associate professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health. The problem is, "They [CAFO operators] have a very strong hook in the legislature," he said, pointing to the political clout that large agricultural organizations wield. That's why CAFO operators have for so long circumvented more stringent waste disposal laws, according to Wilson.
But Wilson stressed that in the event CAFOs are held to tougher laws in the future, the costs associated with modernizing these facilities should be absorbed by the large conglomerates driving the CAFO industry, rather than the smaller farm operators, many of whom struggle financially. "In the process of compliance, there would have to be some modifications made to make sure the costs are internalized by the corporations," said Wilson. "We're not anti-farmers, we're pro-farmers. We're not anti-development, we are pro-sustainable development."
Experts point to other things that CAFO operators can do to minimize their environmental footprint. Greater use of cover crops would promote healthier soils and reduce erosion. Buffer strips and terraces—natural devices that intercept pollutants—help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. But other proposed changes are more controversial. Methane digesters might sound like a good way of transforming methane emissions into renewable energy, but critics pick holes in such technologies, arguing that they do little to nothing to tackle the sheer volume of animal waste generated. More broadly, critics highlight ethical issues inherent in CAFOs, pointing to instances of animal abuse and cramped living conditions.
At the end of the day, though CAFOs are the "dominant model of agriculture," said Lovera, "we didn't vote" for this system. "If I could wave the magic wand, everybody would be using different agricultural techniques, but it's going to take some steps to get us there."
New Investigation: Surge of Poultry #FactoryFarms in #NorthCarolina Added Waste From 515.3M Chickens to That of 9.7… https://t.co/I2JLk0OGWQ— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1550095225.0
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
A new campaign unveiled this weekend by the nonprofit organization Fossil Free Media aims to expand on the goals of the fossil fuel divestment movement, cutting into oil and gas companies' profit margins through their public relations and ad campaigns.
<div id="1dcf1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d5e39a5a3812bc2589ba8aa0563756e0"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330177734799208465" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">PR and ad companies' work for the fossil fuel industry is pushing the planet past the breaking point.… https://t.co/wOuDBM26ne</div> — Clean Creatives (@Clean Creatives)<a href="https://twitter.com/cleancreatives/statuses/1330177734799208465">1605974060.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="21b90" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bdc23e69ff18075b4fb5df6d4939b9f5"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330205383848288257" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Porter Novelli isn't some small shop: they've got offices and clients in 60 countries and are part of @Omnicom, the… https://t.co/iw0BCmrdzx</div> — Jamie Henn (@Jamie Henn)<a href="https://twitter.com/jamieclimate/statuses/1330205383848288257">1605980652.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"It's a BIG deal that they're dropping fossil fuel clients—let's make sure it's the drop that starts a flood," wrote Henn. </p>
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By Jason Farley
COVID-19 has disrupted our daily lives, and it is poised to completely disrupt the holiday season. As people make holiday plans and think about ways to reduce the risks to their loved ones, a strategy is essential.
Are masks really necessary at family gatherings?<p>If you're gathering with friends and family who don't live in your home, yes. Just because you're with people you know doesn't mean you're safe from the coronavirus. Infection rates are <a href="https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/new-cases-50-states" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">higher now than they have ever been</a> in the U.S., and <a href="https://youtu.be/ehdgceGzQxs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">small gatherings have been a source</a> of viral spread. All it takes is one infected person who doesn't know they have the coronavirus to infect others.</p><p>Remember, people can be <a href="https://medical.mit.edu/covid-19-updates/2020/07/how-long-symptom-onset-person-contagious" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">contagious two to three days</a> before symptoms show – that's one thing that makes this virus so hard to stop. And it's why, even if you feel fine, you should wear a mask.</p><p>The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that when both people are wearing masks, the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html" target="_blank">likelihood of infection is low</a>.</p>
Who am I protecting when I wear a mask?<p>In a word: everyone. The coronavirus <a href="https://theconversation.com/aerosols-are-a-bigger-coronavirus-threat-than-who-guidelines-suggest-heres-what-you-need-to-know-142233" target="_blank">spreads through respiratory droplets</a> that you send out into the air when you talk, sing or even just breathe. The tiniest of these droplets can float on air currents for long periods.</p><p>Face masks stop many of those droplets, reducing the amount of virus in the air. That lowers your chances of getting infected, and it also lowers the chances that you'll infect someone else.</p><p><a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html" target="_blank">Studies of people who had prolonged exposure</a> to others with COVID-19 have demonstrated how masks can reduce the chance of the virus spreading. In general, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">well-fitted cloth masks</a> made up of multiple layers can stop most large droplets and at least half of the tiny ones. Plastic <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.10.05.20207241" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">face shields</a> alone are far less effective. <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/08/13/cdc-mask-guidance-masks-valves/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Face masks with valves or vents</a> might be good for construction work, but they don't stop the wearer from breathing out virus into the air.</p>
Can I reuse a mask and when should I replace it?<p>Reusable masks should be kept clean and dry. We're moving into cold and flu season, and noses get drippy. A rule of thumb: Anytime a mask is wet to the point that you can discern the wetness, it's time for a new one if it's disposable, or it's time to clean your reusable mask.</p><p>Wetness allows viruses to more easily move through paper or fabric because it allows the threads to move and may reduce the electrostatic charge in the masks that add extra protection with some fabrics.</p><p>In general, you can use a mask that stays clean and dry for about a week before you need to wash or discard it.</p>
How should I clean a cloth mask?<p>Washing your mask is like washing your clothes. You know when it is time.</p><p>In general, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html" target="_blank">cleaning your mask weekly</a> should be sufficient. If odors develop before then, it's a good idea to wash it sooner. Odor generally means bacterial buildup.</p><p>Cleaning your mask by hand with soap and water is your best option. Using a general detergent on a gentle cycle in the washing machine is also fine, but that may increase the risk of damage, depending on the quality of the material. COVID-19 is not a hardy virus. Any soap or detergent should work fine. There's no need for special chemicals, bleach or harsh soaps.</p><p>Be careful to remove any inserts before washing. Inserted filters are generally not washable.</p><p>Air drying masks works best. Remember, masks should be completely dry before use. So be sure to have a replacement mask handy while the one you just washed dries.</p><p>Sunlight is always a great source of heat to dry your mask. Also, sunlight has ultraviolet radiation, which has been shown to <a href="http://doi.org/10.1111/php.13293" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eliminate coronavirus</a> and is also known to have antibacterial properties.</p>
Can I wear the mask below my nose?<p>Wearing your mask below your nose is, frankly, ridiculous.</p><p>Think about it. If you are breathing through your nose and only covering your mouth, you are effectively eliminating the point of the mask. Properly wearing a mask requires covering both your nose and mouth at all times.</p><p>Studies show that wearing a proper cloth mask or surgical mask while exercising <a href="http://doi.org/10.1513/AnnalsATS.202008-990CME" target="_blank">doesn't affect the flow of oxygen</a> or carbon dioxide in any detectable way. So, unless you have serious heart and lung problems, that isn't an excuse.</p>
How do I safely remove my mask if I’m going to eat or drink?<p>When you <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html" target="_blank">take your mask off</a>, remove it carefully by the straps without touching anything else and put it somewhere safe, like wrapped in paper in a purse, bag or pocket. Then wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. When you put it back on, wash your hands again.</p>
So, how can I have a safe holiday gathering?<p>The safest way to celebrate this year is to do so with members only within your household. The <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CDC is now stressing that point</a>, as well. If you do celebrate with friends and relatives from outside your household, you need an action plan to reduce the risk of exposure.</p><p>Here are five recommendations:</p><ul><li>Limit the number of people – fewer people means fewer opportunities for exposure, and you'll have more room to spread out.</li><li>Require masks when not eating or drinking.</li><li>Use physical distancing when eating. Try to seat people <a href="https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3223" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least 6 feet apart</a>. Eat outside if you can.</li><li>Consider being tested for COVID-19 before traveling or gathering. It's not a guarantee, but it can help flag illnesses. Remember to self-isolate between the test and the event.</li><li>Be prepared to self-isolate for 14 days after traveling or participating in any event that involves people from outside your home.</li></ul><p>[<em>Research into coronavirus and other news from science</em> <a href="https://theconversation.com/us/newsletters/science-editors-picks-71/?utm_source=TCUS&utm_medium=inline-link&utm_campaign=newsletter-text&utm_content=science-corona-research" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Subscribe to The Conversation's new science newsletter</a>.]</p><p><em>The map has been updated with New Hampshire announcing a mask mandate effective Nov. 20.</em></p><p><em>Jason Farley is a professor, infectious disease-trained epidemiologist and nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.<br></em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Jason Farley, PhD, MPH, ANP-BC, FAAN receives funding from the National Institutes of Health on the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for COVID-19 and Becton Dickinson for studies on SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-face-masks-belong-at-your-thanksgiving-gathering-7-things-you-need-to-know-about-wearing-them-150130" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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