Dairies raise environmental, health questions—part two

This is the second part of the series on dairies and their effect on health, both human and animal. The article, titled “The Dirt on Dairy,” by Monica Engebretson, is reprinted with permission from Animal Issues, Fall 2003, the publication of the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, Calif.

Pollution is not the only impact on local water supplies. Dairy farms are also intensive users of water. For example, the Heritage Dairy, a hotly-contested 6,000-cow facility recently given permission to operate in Dixon, Calif., will consume approximately 9 million gallons of well water each year. With droughts and development already putting water supplies in jeopardy, the country can ill afford to pump vast quantities of this resource into the ballooning dairy industry.

The air we breathe

Of all environmental impacts created by mega-dairies, air pollution generally imposes the most immediate problem for the community. Dairy workers and those living near dairies frequently report adverse health effects from exposure to animal waste. People who experience prolonged exposure to dairy-related pollutants are vulnerable to respiratory illness, lung inflammation, and asthma, according to the EPA. The agency also states that “odorous and potentially toxic gases, such as sulfur dioxide, produced by the decomposition of animal wastes, may also cause nausea, headaches, and throat and eye irritation.” Recently, three men at two different dairies in California died when they were overcome by toxic fumes from liquefied manure, fell into manure holding tanks, and drowned.

Dairy facilities also contribute to other air quality problems by introducing dust, smog, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. For example, manure lagoons are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. According to the EPA, the world’s livestock herds and waste lagoons comprise the largest source (30 percent) of human-induced emissions of methane.

Emissions from dairies and other animal feeding operations also play a role in the formation of ozone (smog) and other pollutants that pose a danger to public health and that are regulated by the Clean Air Act. High ozone levels can also reduce crop yields and make plants more vulnerable to disease. In California’s Central Valley, a largely agricultural region in which ozone and particulate matter often exceed national health standards, state projections show that animal waste is on track to become one of the largest sources of smog within the next three years.

Dust and dried manure particles kicked up by cows on crowded feedlots also contribute to air pollution. According to a May 15, 2002, article in the Los Angeles Times, the particulates in cow excrement carried downwind from dairies in Chino contribute to “some of the worst particle air pollution in the nation.” Moreover, in the American Lung Association’s May 2001 report on air pollution, California counties receiving a grade of “F” for air quality included all the major dairy-producing counties: Fresno (105 dairies), Kern (33 dairies), Kings (151 dairies), Madera (46 dairies), Merced (313 dairies), Riverside (109 dairies), Sacramento (55 dairies), San Bernardino (193 dairies), San Joaquin (151 dairies), Stanislaus (305 dairies), and Tulare (236 dairies) (1998 dairy statistics from the California Department of Agriculture).

Until 2002, factory farms were exempt from clean air requirements in California because of a long-standing legal loophole that was closed only after community groups, including Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed suit. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), however, reveals that regulation of air quality problems arising from factory farms is a tricky endeavor. According to the NAS, “Because the Clean Air Act and its regulations generally rely on objective measures of pollutants, the regulatory process has not been effective in controlling odors, which are difficult to measure objectively.” In other words, permitting mega-dairies and other industrial-sized farms under the Clean Air Act will do little to protect the community (including humans, wildlife, and domestic animals) from air quality problems associated with factory farming.

Ironically, while communities suffer from the impacts of industrial-sized dairies, and cows suffer from the effects of overcrowding and forced milk stimulation, the dairy industry itself is experiencing economic hardship due to overproduction: Because supplies are abundant, farmers receive lower prices for the milk they produce. State and federal subsidies, which encourage even greater milk output, only exacerbate the problem—at the taxpayers’ expense.

In California, for example, the state plans to pay dairy farmers up to $45 million over a 12-month period in the form of agricultural subsidies. Even some in the dairy industry point out the illogic of using tax dollars to pay farmers for overproduction. Rachel Kaldor, Executive Director of the Dairy Institute in Sacramento, told The Sacramento Bee earlier this year, “We have so much extra milk right now… and we know as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow that when you give dairymen or anyone else more money for their product, they will make more.” It’s a costly, destructive cycle that shows no sign of slowing.

To be continued…

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