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US hog farm pollution threatens human health and the environment

Hog farms in North Carolina are wreaking havoc on the state – affecting the local environment, wildlife and human health. The voluminous pollution generated by hog farms is a growing problem in the US and is intensified by the modern system of factory farming, writes John McCabe.

14 August 2011

When pigs live in a natural, wild environment they walk and explore many miles a day, and sleep with other pigs in a bed of twigs and/or grass. They are clean, smart, and social animals.

Today, most pigs that are bred for human consumption are raised indoors in smelly, filthy, noisy conditions with cement floors that deform their feet. They are kept in cramped pens and fed horrible diets that are a far cry from what they would naturally eat.

Pregnant pigs are kept in narrow cages that restrict their movement to the point that they can’t turn or lie or stretch. Often the pregnant pigs are kept with a chain or leash around their neck that is tied to the floor or pen.

When the babies are born the piglets’ teeth are cut, their tails are sliced off, and their ears are clipped off. Then they are placed in a pen where they will spend their entire lives with hundreds, and often thousands, of pigs living a similar grim fate of confinement. They are limited to eating a poisonous diet that will make them as fat as possible, as fast as possible.

Most US pigs have respiratory infections at time of slaughter. Several hundred thousand of them are slaughtered every day in the US, and more than that are being born.

“Basically, pork producers figured out some years ago that if they packed the maximum number of pigs into the minimum amount of space, if they pinned the creatures down into fit-to-size iron crates above slatted floors and carved out giant ‘lagoons’ to contain the manure – if they turned the ‘farm,’ in short, into a sunless hell of metal and concrete – it made everything so much more efficient”, says Matthew Scully in a 2006 article.

“It turns out that when you trap intelligent, 400- to 500-pound mammals in gestation crates 22 inches wide and seven feet long, when their limbs are broken from trying to turn or escape and they are covered in sores, blood, tumors, ‘pus pockets,’ and their own urine and excrement, they tend to act up a bit”, continues Scully, author of book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

“[A] memorable sight is the ‘cull pen,’ wherein each and every day, the dead or dying bodies of the weak are placed, the ones who expired from the sheer, unrelenting agony of it”.

Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer newspaper reporters Joby Warrick and Pat Stith, along with editor Melanie Sill, worked for several months on a series of articles that exposed the environmental disasters and health risks of hog farming in factory farms in North Carolina. In April 1996 the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for meritorious public service.

The articles, known as the Boss Hog Series, told how politicians involved in hog farming helped pave the way for a billion dollar hog farming expansion where corporations are taking over the industry and elbowing out the small farmers.

The politicians did so by influencing state agencies, introducing bills, helping to pass laws, and forming policies that provide weaker environmental regulations and zoning protection for corporate hog farming. Many legislatures in North Carolina have a history of receiving money from the hog industry, and some are investors in hog farming.

The expansion of big business hog farming in North Carolina was done in spite of complaints and concerns voiced by long-time residents, local leaders, and environmental groups. But key to the rapid expansion is the way self-serving politicians, along with contributors to political campaigns, make millions from the hog industry.

The issues detailed in the News and Observer are not confined to North Carolina; they are issues being faced by farming and business communities all over the world. Corporate pig farm interests spent $1 million in 1998 to defeat legislators who were working to clean up the environmental hazards of factory hog farm cesspools.

The massive amounts of pollution from the hog farms in eastern North Carolina come from housing several million hogs in large steel barns (factory farms). The combination of the hogs, barns, flies, and pollution has changed the landscape, real estate value, smell, and water quality of the region. The odors from the hog farms have invaded the homes, schools, churches, and businesses of residents angered that their communities are being spoiled by the rapidly expanding hog industry.

The hog population in North Carolina resulted in the state jumping from the seventh to the second largest hog-farming state in the U.S. Since the 1990s there are more hogs than humans in North Carolina. Each hog produces two to four times as much waste as the average human.

By 2000 it was estimated that hog farms in North Carolina were producing more than ten million tons of waste every year. With millions of hogs in such a small area producing that much waste, North Carolina hog farms are turning out more raw sewage than both New York City and the suburbs that surround it.

The pollution produced by the hog farms in North Carolina is overwhelming the land and the people who live there. By 2005 the state had over 16 million hogs producing raw waste equal to at least 32 million people.

The situation has been able to magnify so fast because North Carolina has weaker, and imposes fewer, environmental regulations for hog farms than any major hog-producing state.

The putrid waste from the hog farms is stored in thousands of cesspools that the hog industry likes to charmingly refer to as “lagoons.” Those in the hog industry say the hog waste safely decomposes in the cesspools before it is sprayed onto crop land. The problem is that the land cannot absorb that much waste. The waste stored in the cesspools also leaks into ground water.

The 60 Minutes TV show reported in December 1996 that over 30 percent of water wells near hog farms were contaminated by hog waste. The cesspools also overflow into streams and rivers during heavy rains.

Millions of gallons of hog farm sludge, hog feces, hog afterbirths and blood, as well as cropland fertilizer have leaked into surrounding waterways where it has been killing aquatic life and causing algae overgrowth that chokes waterways. In one incident, an estimated 25 million tons of hog waste flowed out of an eight-acre cesspool when a levee broke.

Many farms have been caught dumping hog waste directly into surrounding streams, rivers, and lakes. The pollution has killed millions of fish and many other types of waterlife, and caused rivers and lakes to be closed off to swimming and water sports.

In 1995, a 120,000-square-foot hog cesspool lagoon released over 25 million gallons of crap into the headwaters of North Carolina’s New River. It took months to reach the ocean and killed millions of fish and unknown numbers of water mammals unfortunate enough to be in the contaminated river.

In 1999 Hurricane Floyd caused so much flooding in Eastern North Carolina that it is estimated that well over 120 million gallons of hog waste made its way into the rivers, and out to the sea. It carried with it tens of thousands of drowned pigs, and killed unknown millions of fish.

Nitrate-nitrogen from the hog cesspools continues to leak into ground water. This is a major problem because the chemical causes methemoglobinemia, a disease that hampers the ability of the blood to absorb oxygen. It can be particularly lethal to infants who drink contaminated water.

Other ingredients of hog waste that may threaten human and animal health include bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Pfiesteria piscicidia is one of the microbes. It results in massive fish kills. When humans are exposed to this microbe they can experience skin sores, nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, breathing difficulties, liver and kidney problems, memory loss, and cognitive impairment.

The putrid smell from the hog farms can saturate everything in the community, including well water, food, laundry, and the structures of the homes.

In addition to the hog waste that is polluting the air, water, and land of North Carolina, the people regularly find dead hogs dumped in the countryside. The corporation may own the pigs, but the farmers who are under contract with the corporation are supposed to take care of the pigs that die and the hog waste. When the farmers are under contract to raise thousands of pigs they can quickly get overwhelmed with the waste and carcasses.

What is a growing problem in North Carolina is not limited to that state.

The corporate players in the hog industry have expanded in several states as well as to other countries, including Eastern Europe. The hog pollution experienced in North Carolina and Iowa is a growing problem in Poland.

Some factory hog farm facilities are designed to hold several hundred thousand hogs with adjoining cesspools, holding millions of gallons of urine mixed with feces containing all the drugs the animals were given, all of the toxic sprays they were treated with, all of the farming chemicals used on the foods the pigs ate, and a wide variety of bacteria. In addition, the lagoons contain the afterbirth of hogs, as well as stillborn pigs and piglets that died soon after birth.

One hog factory in Utah has about 500,000 pigs. Since hogs produce about three times as much excrement as humans, those 500,000 hogs produce more waste than 1.5 million people. It is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, a company responsible for the slaughter of about 27 million hogs in 2005.

An article that appeared in Rolling Stone compared this Smithfield Foods slaughter in body weight to killing all of the human population of America’s 32 largest cities (Boss Hog, by Jeff Tietz, Rolling Stone, Dec. 14, 2006). That same article estimated that the excrement from Smithfield Foods hog farms for one year would fill four Yankee Stadiums.

The article also tells of factory hog farm workers who have died in these cesspools of waste, including five members of one family.

This is an edited extract from Sunfood Traveler: Global Guide to Raw Food Culture by John McCabe. Copyright 2011 John McCabe. Reproduced here with the author’s permission.

John McCabe is also the author of Sunfood Diet Infusion: Transforming Health Through Raw Veganism; Igniting Your Life: Pathways to the Zenith of Health and Success; Sunfood Living: Resource Guide for Global Health; Marijuana & Hemp: History, Uses, Laws and Controversy; and several other books.


0 #2 Janet 2013-02-19 16:49
The problem derives not only from big business, but from consumers who are either unwilling to pay the higher price for range fed pork, or are unaware of the plight of these crate bred animals and innocently buy the tainted meat.
0 #1 Kathleen 2011-08-24 15:38
We certainly do a have a lot to answer for.

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