Report: Air Pollution from Animal Agriculture Identified as Major Killer

June 14, 2021

Air pollution from animal agriculture kills nearly 13,000 people in the United States every year, according to a new study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Usually air pollution focuses on life-shortening pollutants created from burning fossil fuels, but this new look at industrial agriculture highlights the danger of living near mega-farms that spew other pollutants like ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulfide.

Overall, the study estimates that more than 17,000 people die prematurely due to pollution originating on farms. But by far, farms raising animals are the most to blame for the fine-particle pollution that can lodge keep into the lungs and cause cardiovascular disease, cancer and strokes.

How Is Animal Agriculture Linked to Air Pollution?

Most of the air pollution outlined in the study isn’t coming from sustainable, picturesque farms of the past. Today, about 99 percent of farm animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

In this industrialized farming model, thousands of animals are confined to small spaces in an attempt to create dairy, beef, chicken and pork products faster and cheaper.

But more and more studies show the price of this cheap food isn’t including the air, water and soil pollution that threatens people living in the vicinity of CAFOS.

Animal agriculture pollutes the air mainly tiny particles of pollution known as PM2.5. Although tilling and dust can create this type of pollution, this study found that ammonia is the most deadly culprit. Ammonia in animal waste and fertilizer easily mingles with other atmospheric gases to create harmful particles that take hold in your respiratory tract and bloodstream.

The study authors estimate that shifting toward more nutrient-dense plant-based foods could slash deaths related to agricultural air pollution by 68 to 83 percent.

Industry Response to Air Pollution form Animal Agriculture Study

The amount of waste produced by industrialized farming is astounding.

Just consider these animal agriculture facts:

-Large farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities

-A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce more than 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That’s 1.5 times the amount of sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia.

-Every year in the United States, livestock animals create three to 20 times more manure than people produce here.

Still, despite the evidence, the industrialized farming industry criticized the latest study, saying North Carolina hog farmers have made changes changes in feed efficiency to lower ammonia levels by 22 to 54 percent.

Still, that may not be enough to comfort the low-income, and often minority, families who live near these enormous farms popping up all over places like coastal North Carolina.

A 2018 study found living in the same zip code as a hog CAFO was linked to:

-30 percent more deaths in people with kidney disease

-50 percent more deaths in anemic people

-130 percent more deaths among people with sepsis

The researchers also found a connection between living near a CAFO and:

-Dying early of any cause

-Dying from tuberculosis

Why Traditional Animal Agriculture Is Bad for the Environment (and Us!)

You may have driven through areas of industrialized farming with air quality so poor, your eyes watered and you had to pinch your nose. But can you imagine living there?

Researchers are continually publishing data showing the threats of living near CAFOs, urging for change to protect not just the environment, but human health, too.

“Research has consistently found that living near CAFOs is associated with an array of negative health impacts, including respiratory disease, mental health problems, and certain types of infections,” says Keeve Nachman, PhD, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Animal agriculture pollution is tied to all sorts of harmful exposures to things like:

Animal agriculture pollution is tied to all sorts of harmful exposures to things like:

Dangerous pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant superbugs

-Mites

-Mold

-Endotoxins

-Toxic gas vapors

These sources of farm and animal waste pollution are tied to health ailments like:

Headaches

Eye irritation

Weakness

Nausea

MRSA

Uterine cancer

Lung cancer

interstitial lung diseases

COPD

Asthma symptoms

Pneumonia

Animal studies also suggest that exposure to high levels of ammonia in air may adversely affect other organs, such as the liver, kidney and spleen.

Beyond that, most manure storage systems used by CAFOs also contribute to potent greenhouse gas emissions that further destabilize the climate. For instance, storing manure in a manure pit or “lagoon” causes the manure to break down anaerobically, causing higher levels of methane and nitrous oxide, which are 23 and 300 more potent greenhouse gases compared to carbon dioxide.

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