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
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'
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."