The Poop on Manure in the Water: We're Sick of It

by Shana Campbell Jones

September 18, 2009

Today’s New York Times article about excess manure in the water is a stark reminder of what can happen when an environmental problem isn’t addressed: people get really sick.

While the article is shocking -- it describes how families in Wisconsin living close to dairy farms suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach problems, and severe ear infections from parasites and bacteria that seeped into the drinking water -- it restates what a lot of people have known for a long time. We are failing to protect people from agricultural runoff because the Clean Water Act does not address it adequately, as Bill Andreen discussed just this week.

Meanwhile, in the case of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are covered by the Clean Water Act, EPA has looked away for years. The problem is acute enough that the Government Accountability Office took EPA to task for sticking its head in the sand. A 2008 GAO report found that “no federal agency collects accurate and consistent data on the number, size, and location of CAFOs,” in spite of the fact that “large farms can produce more raw waste than the human population of a large city.”

And it’s not just the folks who live in rural areas next to farms who are threatened with illness. Last week, Charles W. Schmidt wrote an extensive article in Environmental Health Perspectives about the connection between swine flu and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The article is a comprehensive look at a troubling aspect of the swine flu outbreak, namely, that big pig farms are a potential source of the virus.

Tellingly, the article describes how CAFO workers are 50 times more likely to have H1N1 antibodies than the non-exposed. Spouses of CAFO workers are 25 times more likely to have these antibodies, showing how easily the virus jumps from CAFO workers to the general population. And as Tom Philpott pointed out in Grist in April, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, operates a giant CAFO five miles from where the swine flu outbreak first originated in Perote, Mexico.

Finally, CAFOs affect human health in other ways, too. The hormones and pharmaceuticals used at CAFOs -- in large part because the places are so unsanitary that the animals are easily sickened – are also getting into our water. Just this week the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released the largest and most comprehensive study to date about how widespread intersex fish are across the United States. Scientists found intersex fish – fish with both male and female characteristics – in about a third of all the sites they examined. Hormones are one likely cause. The Pee Dee River at Bucksport, S.C., boasted the highest percentage of intersex largemouth bass – a whopping 91%.

It’s more than past time for Congress, EPA and the states to get serious about getting the poop out of our water. It’s no secret where it’s coming from, and people are sick of – and sick from – inaction. Regulating factory farms and agricultural runoff would be a good place for our policymakers to start.

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Shana Campbell Jones, J.D., is a consultant to the Center for Progressive Reform on Chesapeake Bay issues.  She joined CPR in 2007 as a policy analyst, and took on the role of executive director in 2009, before leaving the staff to teach environmental policy at Old Dominion University.

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