Study: Fecal Bacteria from N.C. Hog Farms Infects Nearby Homes

Ignoring Findings, State Lawmakers Look to Shield Big Pork from Liability

WASHINGTONScientific tests found abundant hog feces on homes and lawns, and in the air of private properties near big hog farms in North Carolina – proof that factory farms are exposing nearby communities to dangerous fecal bacteria, endangering the health of tens of thousands of citizens. Despite this disgusting evidence, state lawmakers are moving to strip citizens of their right to fair compensation through so-called nuisance suits against concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

"This study, by a scientist who has done groundbreaking work for the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, proves that industrial-scale swine farms are not just a nuisance that damages property values, but a serious threat to the health of people who live nearby," said Ken Cook, president of EWG, which has mapped an estimated 60,000 homes within half a mile of North Carolina swine and poultry CAFOS.

The investigation was conducted by Dr. Shane Rogers, a professor at Clarkson University in New York, whose work on agricultural pollution has been sponsored by the EPA, the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey. He is an expert witness in nuisance lawsuits by hundreds of North Carolinians against Smithfield Foods, the politically powerful Chinese-owned company that dominates the state's massive pork industry.

Rogers tested both air samples and physical samples from the exteriors and yards of 17 homes up to a mile away from a Smithfield hog CAFO for a unique DNA only found in a bacterium in swine feces (see pages 66 to 68 of his report). He noted foul odors in every home he visited, and then tested the DNA for the presence of a genetic sequence known as pig2bac.

Scientists often search for pig2bac because it’s relatively hard to detect and decays faster that other swine feces bacteria. This means that when the DNA is found in large amounts, the exposure to hog feces was both abundant and recent.

Of the 17 homes tested, 14 tested positive. In addition, all six dust samples collected from the air and yards of four residences “contained tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles.” In his report, Rogers noted: "It is far more likely than not that hog feces also gets inside the clients homes where they live and where they eat."

A 2010 study by the National Association of Local Boards of Health, reported that animal manure contains more than 150 infectious pathogens that can harm human health:

Many of these pathogens are concerning because they can cause severe diarrhea. Healthy people who are exposed to pathogens can generally recover quickly, but those who have weakened immune systems are at increased risk for severe illness or death. Those at higher risk include infants or young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who are immunosuppressed, HIV positive, or have had chemotherapy. This risk group now roughly compromises 20% of the U.S. population.

The homes tested as part of the investigation range from 615 feet to almost one mile from the hog barns, 458 feet to more than a mile from the open air manure pits, and 71 feet to more than two-thirds of a mile from fields where the liquid manure is sprayed as fertilizer.

In a recent investigation, EWG used county tax assessor data to map the estimated 60,000 residential properties in the state within half a mile of a hog or poultry factory farm. But as Rogers noted, studies have documented health problems, reduced air quality and noxious odors at much farther distances, and EWG identified an estimated 270,000 residential properties within three miles of an industrial-scale hog farm.  

Last week Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would have placed a cap of a few thousand dollars on damages citizens could recoup in nuisance lawsuits against hog CAFOs or any other agricultural operation. But the Republican-controlled legislature is moving quickly to override the Democratic governor's veto.

On Wednesday, the state House of Representatives voted 74-40 to overturn the veto and make the hog industry bill law. It's now up to the state Senate to determine whether to protect the financial interests of Smithfield Foods – the American division of a multinational conglomerate controlled by the Chinese government – or the property rights and health of the hundreds of thousands of their constituents who live near factory farms.

“For most Americans, it’s stomach-turning to imagine having your home blanketed with hog feces and the dangerous bacteria it carries, but that’s just a normal day in the lives of many North Carolinians who happen to live near factory farms,” said EWG's Ken Cook. “These folks' ability to protect their families from airborne pig feces and once again enjoy their homes now rests with the state Senate."

The author of the bill is state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, whose district is at the epicenter of North Carolina's hog-raising industry and who has taken $115,000 in campaign contributions from the pork industry over his career. During a hearing, he callously downplayed the the impact on the communities assaulted by the pollution and stench from factory farms. 

“Is there some odor?" asked Dixon. "Yes. But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell.”

Dixon's attitude and his bill stink as badly as the odor from big pig farms, said Cook.

“It's kind of hard to enjoy the smell of breakfast when pig manure is the air you're breathing," Cook said. "The Senate can choose to stand with Big Pork's big stink, or stand up for the the health and long-held property rights of their constituents." 

Photo credit Waterkeeper Alliance

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