3 Ways Factory Farms Contribute to Air Pollution

BY ON November 10, 2011

Pigs stuffed into cages at a factory farm

Last week over at my blog, Non-Toxic Kids, I released a new ebook called Eat Non-Toxic: a manual for busy parents. For months now, I have been writing this book and thinking about how parents can limit toxic exposures from harmful chemicals in food and feeding and drinking gear.

While researching the problems of factory farms, I came across some information that reminded me how powerful our food choices can be, not only for our bodies, but for the health and welfare of our communities.

Moms Clean Air Force was a Blog Action Day partner, and I wrote about Food Activism–how the choices we make everyday, where to get our food, what we buy and eat, affect our lives, communities, health, and environment in profound ways.

In my research I learned about the connections between factory farming and air pollution. Not only does industrial factory farming increase global warming, pollute ecosystems, and drinking water, it harms our air quality in significant ways.

Factory farms are defined in different ways, and the term is used loosely. They are also known as Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “New and existing operations which stable or confine and feed or maintain for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period more than the number of animals specified. There is no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season.”

These aren’t the bucolic farms that dot the landscape here in Vermont. Far from it.

3 ways factory farms contribute to air pollution…and what you can do about it:

1. Manure Lagoons:

At factory farm sites there are thousands of animals confined to warehouse-like, windowless buildings. And in most cases, they are located right beside huge lagoons of animal manure and urine. When I say huge, I mean enormous – some lagoons are larger than seven acres and contain as much as 20 to 45 million gallons of wastewater.

Toxic gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane are released from these lagoons, and their effects on human health are troubling:

According to the NRDC:

“For instance, one gas released by the lagoons, hydrogen sulfide, is dangerous even at low levels. Its effects — which are irreversible — range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death. Other health effects associated with the gases from factory farms include headaches, shortness of breath, wheezing, excessive coughing and diarrhea.”

People living near these sites face these exposures in the air, and also in their water from leakage from these lagoons. Sometimes the manure is sprayed and over-applied to fields, causing more pollutants to enter the air, water, and soil.

This problem is growing…

According to the Sustainable Table:

“Hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide are the major hazardous gases produced by decomposing manure. The EPA estimates that methane emissions from manure increased by 26 percent in the United States between 1990 and 2004, due primarily to larger, more concentrated dairy cow and swine facilities. North Carolina’s hog industry alone produces about 300 tons of ammonia each day.”

2. Feed and Fertilizer:

The quality of feed animals are given has declined with the proliferation of industrial factory farms. The NRDC reports that this grain feed is low quality. It fattens animals quickly and cheaply, and causes constant indigestion in livestock. This causes cows to contribute higher methane emissions to the air.

Why care about methane? The gas contributes to both global warming and to the effects of ground level ozone, or smog. According to Princeton University, reducing methane emissions will save lives by improving air quality, and lessen global warming effects.

In addition, cheap feed requires the use of synthetic fertilizers which pollute the air. These fertilizers were responsible for 68 percent of all nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere in 2004.

3. VOCs, Odor, and Dust:

The EPA defines Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long-term adverse health effects.

Factory farms emit a wide variety of VOCS.

According to One Earth:

“A document of the Ohio State University says that livestock operations emit odors and dust. About odor, the document states: “More than 160 volatile compounds have been identified as contributors to odor from confinement facilities. These compounds include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide…” and so on. As for the dust: “Dust particles are carriers of odor, toxic gases, endotoxins, and pathogens”.

Factory farms contribute to air pollution in our country significantly every day. People living near these facilities face threats to their air quality, their water quality, and soil.

What can you do?

Pledge to eat only locally, humanely raised meat. You can find local sources at your farmer’s market or natural foods store. There are many meat and localvore CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) popping up nationwide.

President Obama set an ambitious agenda to reform factory farms to better protect human health and he has made important progress, but much more is needed.

Please JOIN MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE to fight for clean air around factory farms and beyond.

TOPICS: Asthma, Pollution, Science