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 Article of Interest - Topic

OH Neighbors of Vast Hog Farms Say Foul Air Endangers Their Health
by Jennifer Lee, May 11, 2003, NY Times
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Robert Thornell says that five years ago an invisible swirling poison invaded his family farm and the house he had built with his hands. It robbed him of his memory, his balance and his ability to work. It left him with mood swings, a stutter and fistfuls of pills. He went from doctor to doctor, unable to understand what was happening to him.
The 14th doctor finally said he knew the source of the maladies: cesspools the size of football fields belonging to the industrial hog farm a half-mile from the Thornell home.

"I never related it to the hogs at all," said Mr. Thornell, who is now 55.

A growing number of scientists and public health officials around the country say they have traced a variety of health problems faced by neighbors of huge industrial farms to vast amounts of concentrated animal waste, which emit toxic gases while collecting in open-air cesspools or evaporating through sprays. The gases, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, are poisonous.

The waste is collected in pools because the concentration of hogs is so high that it must be treated before it can be used as fertilizer.

Livestock trade officials and Bush administration regulators say more study is needed before any cause and effect can be proved. But Dr. Kaye H. Kilburn, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies the effects of toxic chemicals on the brain, said evidence strongly supported a link between the farms and the illnesses.

In Iowa, one of the country's two biggest pork-producing states (North Carolina is the other), state environment officials started conducting air quality tests for hydrogen sulfide and ammonia at six neighborhood locations around hog farms last month. Brian Button, an air information specialist with the state, said preliminary data showed that 22 times in April, the gases exceeded the state's recommended air standards of 15 parts per billion of hydrogen sulfide and 150 parts per billion of ammonia, averaged over an hour. The highest level recorded for hydrogen sulfide was 70 parts per billion, a level that would have exceeded the air standards for at least six other states.

Dr. Kilburn, who runs a business diagnosing neurological disorders, said that over the last three years he had seen about 50 patients, including Mr. Thornell and his wife, Diane, who had suffered neurological damage he judged to be a result of hydrogen sulfide poisoning from industrial farms. The Thornells are considering a lawsuit based on his work.

"The coincidence of people showing a pattern of impairment and being exposed to hydrogen sulfide arising from lagoons where hog manure is stored and then sprayed on fields or sprayed into the air" makes a connection "practically undeniable," Dr. Kilburn said in an interview.

Industrial farms often house thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hogs, which generate millions of gallons of waste each year. Runoff and water pollution have been the focus of many of the government and academic studies of such farms' environmental impact.

In comparison, little has been done by federal or state environmental officials to monitor or limit air pollution from these farms. The Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have formed a joint committee to look at farm air pollution.

Around industrial hog farms across the country, people say their sickness rolls in with the wind. It brings headaches that do not go away and trips to the emergency room for children whose lungs suddenly close up. People young and old have become familiar with inhalers, nebulizers and oxygen tanks. They complain of diarrhea, nosebleeds, earaches and lung burns.

Paul Isbell of Houston, Miss., started experiencing seizures after a hog farm moved in down the road. Jeremiah Burns of Hubbardston, Mich., now carries a six-pound oxygen tank with him. Kevin Pearson of Meservey, Iowa, carried a towel in his car because he vomited five or six times a week on his way to work. Julie Jansen's six children suffered flulike symptoms and diarrhea when farms moved into their neighborhood in Renville, Minn. One of Ms. Jansen's daughters was found by Dr. Kilburn to have neurological damage. She has problems with balance and has lost some feeling in her fingers.

Public health officials have been cautious in drawing a clear link from hydrogen sulfide to neurological damage, though they say low-level exposure has been connected to fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, poor memory, dizziness and other health problems.

"In community exposures, when they are exposed to a mixture of chemicals hydrogen sulfide included there have been neurological effects reported as well," said Selene Chou, who manages the hydrogen sulfide toxicological profile for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Based on what I see, there could be neurological effects, but we don't know at what low level of chronic exposure," Ms. Chou said. "That information is badly needed, because communities have experienced these effects."

The agricultural industry, backed by some government officials, contends that these health effects are at best poorly documented. They say that scientific studies have relied too much on the testimony of the people with medical problems, and that there is no way to prove that those problems are directly attributable to the farms.

"The health concern issues raised by the residents are totally unfounded," said Ron Prestage, an owner of Prestage Farms, the target of two suits filed by Mississippi residents. "There has never been a neighbor of a farm who has come forward with any documentation of a health problem of any kind."

Ohio pork producers agree.

"I do not think there is any way that it can be proven that that hog farm, which is a half-mile away, has any effect," said Dick Isler, the executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Producers Council, who said he knew about Mr. Thornell's case. Mr. Isler said studies showed that "any time you are more than a hundred feet away it is not a problem."

Residents say they do not have difficulty proving that they are ill their medications and oxygen tanks demonstrate that. They acknowledge that for many symptoms, the link to the farms is circumstantial. But in the most extreme cases, they say the evidence of a link is clear.

Bush administration officials are negotiating with lobbyists for the large farms to establish voluntary monitoring of air pollution, which will give farm operators amnesty for any Clean Air Act violations while generating data that will enable regulators to track the type and source of pollutants more accurately.

"We are negotiating with industry to work on capturing better information as to what emissions factors are in play," said J. P. Suarez, who is in charge of enforcement for the environmental agency.

Growing layers of lawsuits, government reports and regulatory tussles on the state and federal levels are signs of increasing tensions. Some 1,800 residents of Mississippi have filed class-action lawsuits against factory farms, and the state health agency has put a moratorium on new ones. In response to citizen complaints, a few states, including Texas and Minnesota, have set pollution standards aimed at the farms. Iowa's state environmental agency recently announced that it would institute new pollution regulations affecting the farms. But the state legislature, under industry pressure, nullified those regulations last week, saying they were overreaching.

State and federal efforts to regulate the water pollution from factory farms may actually cause the farms to divert chemicals into the air, the National Academy of Sciences says. Farms have adopted the practice of spraying liquid manure into the air when cesspool levels get too high, a practice that creates mists that are easily carried by the wind.

When Mr. Thornell first became ill, he said, he thought he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Unable to go back to work as a schoolteacher, he retired on disability at 53. For two years, he had no idea what was happening. Then he learned about Dr. Kilburn's research while watching television. He sent an e-mail message to Dr. Kilburn, who told him to come to Pasadena for a diagnosis.

The Thornells, who had never been to California, drove all the way, with a stop at the Grand Canyon. The diagnosis for both Mr. Thornell and his wife was irreversible brain injuries from the hydrogen sulfide gas.

Mrs. Thornell said her husband had lost his energetic smile. Now he speaks slowly and often loses his train of thought. He does not drive far from the house by himself, because he often gets lost.

"It's like I have a 2.1 gigahertz body with a 75 megahertz mind," Mr. Thornell said. "I feel like collateral damage."

Mrs. Thornell added, "It's the price we pay for cheap food."

Over the last 20 years, the industrialization of agriculture, especially the emergence of large-scale livestock farms, has raised concerns about pollution in rural areas.

"It is no longer the mom-and-pop operation it used to be," said Viney Aneja, a professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University who has studied factory farms' air pollution. "This is a factory. Treat it as one. It should be under the same constraints as a chemical operation."

Some former government employees said industry pressure had limited their ability to study and combat the problem.

Former Environmental Protection Agency prosecutors said they started looking at air pollution from factory farms in 1998, but political appointees issued a directive in early 2002 that effectively stymied new cases. "You had decisions about enforcement that were being made on the political level without any input from the enforcement," said Michele Merkel, a prosecutor who resigned from the agency in protest.

Eric Schaeffer, the former director of civil enforcement at the environmental agency, said Agriculture Department officials tried to exert influence to protect the industrial farms. "They essentially wanted veto power," he said.

Lisa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the environmental agency, said, "Given the sensitivity of air emissions issues, headquarters is directly involved in the decision-making process." She said enforcement decisions were made within the agency, and enforcement was continuing.

At the Agriculture Department, officials have reclassified research topics relating to industrial farms and health, including antibiotic-resistant pathogens, as "sensitive." As a result, at least one scientist, James Zahn, has left the department. "It was a choke hold on objective research," said Dr. Zahn, who had studied swine and bacteria until he left last fall. "Originally we were praised for the work we were doing. All of a sudden we were told, no more antibiotic resistance work."

Internal department e-mail messages made available by the Natural Resources News Service show that Dr. Zahn's superiors barred him from presenting research at a conference in Iowa in 2002. A message from a supervisor advised Dr. Zahn that "politically sensitive and controversial issues require discretion."

Julie Quick, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said that Dr. Zahn was discouraged from speaking about his research because he is not an expert on how the compounds in swine manure affect human health.

Disputes within regulatory agencies seem distant concerns to the Thornells, who have been advised by Dr. Kilburn to move out of their home. Their neurological damage is irreversible, but they can prevent it from getting worse, he told them.

"If I could sell the house, I would move in a second, but I don't know where to go," Mr. Thornell said. "I've lived here for 44 years. This is home to me."

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