The Public Health Cost of Cheap Meat
A large compendium of respected, peer-reviewed studies by scientists, doctors and professional researchers conducted over the last 50 years address the negative impacts of factory farms on public health from breathing noxious emissions produced by CAFOs and from exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (The following brief summary includes footnote references to the actual studies in an annotated bibliography at the end of this page.)
Toxic Air Quality and CAFOs
In factory farms, liquid manure – urine and feces - collects in underground confinement pits or outdoor lagoons for six to twelve months at a time. Without air and light, the raw hog sewage decomposes anaerobically producing a host of toxins, including over 150 different gases. (1)
Of these gases, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia have the most impact on community health. Hydrogen sulfide is a dangerous gas that, if exposed to high levels, can cause rapid death. CAFO workers are at most risk from lethal levels and the industry provides guidelines for protecting worker health.(2) Nonetheless, several deaths from CAFO workers succumbing to hydrogen sulfide poisoning occurred in Iowa over the last two years.
In some communities, depending on their proximity to factory farms, ambient hydrogen sulfide levels can be high enough to create physical harm. Hydrogen sulfide can impact the respiratory system causing eye, nose and throat irritation or for some asthmatics, breathing difficulties. It can also increase susceptibility to pneumonia. The nervous system can become impaired leading to headaches, poor memory, tiredness, balance problems, dizziness, and decreased sense of smell.(2,3,4,5) It also can affect the digestive system leading to vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. (6)
Ammonia gas emissions from factory farms can cause eye irritation, headache, nausea, appetite loss, and a range of respiratory issues including severe coughing and chronic lung disease such as asthma.(2)
People with already impaired respiratory systems may find themselves experiencing increased breathing problems when a factory farm locates nearby. Others report they start experiencing environmental asthma for the first time in their lives. Children living on factory farms have a higher incident of asthma (7) and those attending schools near a confinement have a greater incidence of wheezing and asthma.(8)
CAFO workers in particular can find themselves experiencing an increase in respiratory issues from exposure to ammonia and particulates. One study reveals that 25% of confinement workers experience some type of acute or chronic respiratory distress ranging from bronchitis, mucus membrane irritation, asthma-like syndrome, and respiratory distress syndrome. (9)
What is the cost? The cost to treat any of these ailments is significant. For example, the cost of treating asthma, which can affect neighbors of CAFOs and confinement workers, involves outpatient doctor visits, emergency room visits, hospitalization and medication; and indirect costs from missed days at work, lost worker productivity, and missed school days.
Prescription asthma drugs cost patients an average of $3300 per year reports the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. One study found 16% of those with asthma had high health care bills, spent over 10% of their income on treatment, and because of financial strain, were less likely to continue needed treatment.(10)
Depending on the level of exposure and proximity of one’s home or business, some of these costs can be attributable to factory
farms. Who pays? People suffering from illnesses caused by factory farms have to bear the cost of their medical care and higher insurance premiums. Taxpayer dollars pay for government programs to assist those who are unable to afford insurance. Individuals who qualify for government programs or whose insurance doesn’t adequately cover their doctor and drug bills may reduce their needed treatment and bear the costs of poor health.
Everyone living near a factory farm who is affected by a contributing physical ailment pays with physical misery and a reduced ability to enjoy their life. Individuals may pay with lost jobs and companies may pay with lost productivity. Students pay with lost time at school and potentially impaired studies.
No one wins when factory farms harm public health.
Learn what you can do here.
It often takes more than one round of antibiotics to combat MRSA – or a combination of different antibiotics until the right one is found.(13) (If you suspect MRSA, it’s recommended your doctor cultures the infection to determine the correct antibiotic to treat that strain.)
The connection between antibiotic-resistant bacteria, factory farms and communities was proven in a number of studies conducted over the last several years. One University of Iowa study of Iowa farms found the same strain of MRSA colonized in 70% of hogs and 64% of workers, confirming Dutch and Canadian studies (14) Carrying MRSA increases one’s chance of contracting it 8-12 fold. (15)
Another University of Iowa study found neighbors living within one mile of a large factory farm – 2500 hogs – were nearly three times more likely to colonize MRSA themselves.(16) Further, a Johns Hopkins study found 11% of participants afflicted with MRSA and soft tissue infections were living or working near fields spread with raw hog sewage from a factory farm. (17)
What is the cost? The physical and emotional suffering from MRSA is significant. Skin infections can become painful abscesses that need surgical draining. Pneumonia may develop. MRSA that travels internally can result in hospitalization and even death. Those who contracted MRSA can experience psychological effects such as depression, anger, post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. (15)
The financial cost is also significant. One study by the University of Pittsburgh found the cost to treat community associated MRSA can range from $9,347 - $23,689, depending on the patient’s age. These costs include
direct medical costs, such as doctor/ER visits, hospitalization, and treatment and indirect costs such as productivity losses, worker absenteeism for both patients and caregivers, and a variety of costs associated with a patient’s death. (18)
Who pays for these costs? Neighbors of factory farms or CAFO workers who contract MRSA pay with physical and emotional suffering, medical bills, and physical incapacitation if hospitalized. Some people pay with their lives and their families and friends pay emotionally with the grief of losing a loved one.
Those affected and their families also pay financially with medical bills, higher insurance premiums, and increased stress levels. The patient and their caretaker may also pay with lost wages if hospitalized. Taxpayers pay with covering medical costs through Medicaid for those unable to afford health insurance.
Companies may pay with higher insurance premiums as well as with lost productivity when the employee misses work, dies, or if an employee either care takes or loses a loved one. These are all heavy cost burdens to bear.
These are some of the costs cheap meat imposes on Iowa's public health.
Read more about factory farms and superbugs here.
Learn What You Can Do Here.
1 Greenberg, Michael I. Occupational, Industrial, and Environmental Toxicology. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2003.
2. “Beware of Manure Pit Hazards.” National Ag Safety Database.
3. “Toxic Substances Portal – Hydrogen Sulfide/Carbonyl Sulfide.” Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.
4. “Human Impairment from Living Near Confined Animal (Hog) Feeding Operations.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health. October 2011.
5. "Community Health and Socioeconomic Issues Surrounding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations." Environmental Health Perspectives. February 2007.
6. “Hydrogen Sulfide in Physiology and Diseases of the Digestive Tract.” Microorganisms. 2015.
7. “Asthma and Farm Exposures in a Cohort of Rural Children.” Environmental Health Perspectives. March 2005.
9. “The Respiratory Inflammatory Response to the Swine Confinement Building Environment.” National Ag Safety Database.
10. “Cost of Asthma on Society.” Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
11. Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
12. “Trends in Invasive Methicillin-Resistant Infections.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pediatrics. September 23, 2014.
13. "MRSA Infection." The Mayo Clinic.
14 "Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Strain ST398 In Present in Midwestern US Swine and Swine Workers." University of Iowa. PLOS One, 2009.
16. "Residential Proximity to Large Number of Swine in Feeding Operations Is Associated with Increased Risk of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus Colonization at Time of Hospital Admission in Rural Iowa Veterans." Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, February 2014.
17. "National Burden of Invasive Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus Infections, United States. 2011." JAMA Internal Medicine, 2013.
18 "The Economic Burden of Community-Associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA)". Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 2012.
19. “At UN Global Leaders Commit to Act on Antimicrobial Resistance.” General Assembly of the United Nations. September 21, 2016.