by Kim Krisberg
A couple years ago, two Johns Hopkins University public health researchers attended a public hearing about the possible expansion of an industrial food animal production facility. During the hearing, a community member stood up to say that if the expansion posed any hazards, the health department would surely be there to protect the people and alert them to any dangers. The two researchers knew that due to limited authority and resources, that probably wasn’t the case.
“We felt like there was this false sense of comfort among the public,” said Roni Neff, one of the two researchers at the hearing and director of research and policy at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The experience led Neff and her colleagues to embark on a study examining the role of state and local health departments in dealing with health concerns related to industrial food animal production (IFAP) sites. IFAP is the dominant method of meat, dairy and egg production in the U.S., and it involves housing massive numbers of animals in close quarters. According to the final study, which was published last month in PLOS ONE, between 1959 and 2007, mean farm size went up by more than 2,300 percent for hogs and chickens, illustrating the dramatic shift from many smaller farms to much fewer, very large industrial farms.
“There’s really not much literature on the extent to which health departments are engaged with industrial food animal production,” Neff told me. “We were curious because there are significant health impacts (associated with IFAP) and we wanted to understand what role health departments might be playing.”
Occupational health risks associated with IFAP have been especially well documented; however the research on health hazards to close-by communities is mounting as well. According to the study, IFAP facilities put off air emissions related to respiratory, cardiovascular and neurologic disorders, and produce enormous amounts of animal waste that can contaminate drinking water sources. Studies have tied chronic exposure to IFAP odors to headaches, nausea, upset stomach, mood disorder and sleep problems. Differing state and local agencies have regulatory authority over IFAP facilities, however enforcement varies by state and nearly all of the time, the regulating agency isn’t specifically tasked with protecting human health.
But despite these health risks, the PLOS ONE study found that health departments have little engagement with IFAP sites, often because of a lack of resources or jurisdiction. Study authors Neff, Jillian Fry, Linnea Laestadius, Clare Grechis and Keeve Nachman write:
A report by the National Council of State Legislatures indicates that primary state-level regulatory authority over IFAP facilities falls largely with Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and that health departments generally have little or no role in these activities, which raises concerns that regulations may not be designed to protect human health.
Another critical factor to consider when examining the (health department) role in addressing health impacts from IFAP is that many local and state (health departments) in the US have suffered significant and sustained resource reductions, in part attributable to the recession and weak economic recovery in the early 2000s. Limited staff and resources hamper state (health departments’) ability to investigate noncommunicable disease clusters.
“Most of the time when health departments did get involved it was because of a particularly egregious facility, or there would be so much public health outcry that the health department would get involved on its own or with another agency, but that wasn’t routine,” said study co-author Fry, project director for the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at the Center for a Livable Future. “The problem is that these facilities may be following normally accepted operating procedures and not be in violation of any laws and still be causing significant environmental and public health issues.”
Lack of jurisdiction, resources are main barriers
Researchers conducted phone interviews with 13 county health departments, eight state health departments as well as eight community members. Among the health departments that did receive resident complaints about IFAP sites, the most common issues were about odor, water quality, respiratory health, general health and stress. Health staff reported that the frequency of calls had remained stable or declined during the previous few years, with one interviewee noting that the number of calls dropped “when the state actually started enforcing feedlot rules.”
Most interviewees said they respond to such calls on a case-by-case basis and few kept official records of such issues. In nearly every instance, health department staff said they refer callers to other agencies, citing their lack of regulatory authority. In addition, most interviewees said their agencies were not involved in decision-making with regard to animal agriculture, though a few reported that they do provide input. About half of state health departments reported gathering some IFAP-related data, mostly motivated by especially poorly run facilities.
Among the barriers to action, health departments cited lack of jurisdiction as well as limited resources and infrastructure. Some health departments also “described political barriers to addressing the issue, including industry political influence in the state and county, agriculture’s importance for economies in rural areas, and intentional efforts by legislators and administrators to avoid enforcing IFAP regulations,” the study stated.
“If you think about a factory putting out contaminants at the same levels as these (animal production) facilities…it would be make sense that the health department would be engaged,” said Neff, who also serves as an assistant scientist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins. “But we have this idyllic idea about farms and that they couldn’t possibly be causing all these problems.”
When talking with community members, study researchers found that all those interviewed had concerns about IFAP-related health risks, and many reported contacting their local health department or local board of health. In fact, researchers reported that oftentimes, community members and organizations were taking on what would traditionally be health department activities, such as environmental monitoring and public education. Nearly all community members said there should be a role for health departments, the study found.
While both Neff and Fry said that giving health departments a more official role in IFAP issues could certainly improve public health protection, Neff also noted that there are low-cost ways to involve health departments without changing policy or shifting resources. For example, providing training and education on IFAP issues would allow public health officials to better engage with and educate their communities.
“By playing a role in education and outreach to communities, (health departments) could help community members protect their health,” Neff said.
Fry told me she hopes both community members and public health officials will use the study’s findings to increase knowledge, education and advocacy around IFAP-related health issues. Fry said she imagines that maybe the next time someone stands up in a IFAP public hearing and makes the logical assumption that the health department will be watching out for people’s health, “someone who’s read this paper could inform them that that’s not the case.”
“It’s completely understandable for the public to have misunderstandings about how health departments operate,” Fry said. “One might imagine that a health department would automatically be aware of the health risks in a community…(this study) highlights the fact that health departments are not all knowing and all seeing and for them to be involved in this area, things will have to change.”
To read the full study, click here. For more information on the facilities highlighted in the study, visit the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for the last decade.