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
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
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.3
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 asthma7 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 eatment.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
don’t 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
No one wins when factory farms harm public health.
Learn what you can do
Cost of Antibiotic
Resistant Bacterial Infections
Confined livestock are routinely
dosed with low levels of antibiotics for disease prevention and growth
enhancement, helping to turn factory
farms into a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This poses
a significant threat to individuals and society at large.11
Neighbors of factory farms and CAFO
workers may develop community-acquired Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus
aureus (MRSA), an antibiotic resistant staph infection that is potentially
fatal. MRSA can begin as a bacterial skin infection, and in some cases, it can migrate
internally. Immunosuppressed individuals, the elderly, infants,
and African American children carry a greater risk of contracting MRSA.12
The infection can be fatal when afflicting internal organs. In some rare
situations, it can present as a flesh eating infection.
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
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
A 2013 Centers for Disease
Prevention and Control report found 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic
resistant infections, a number that CDC Director Thomas Friedman deems “minimal
Read more about factory farms and
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
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
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.
Take Action to
A recent global summit of Heads of State at the United
National General Assembly, only the fourth such summit related to a human
health crises, concluded, “The high levels of
AMR [antimicrobial resistance] already seen in the world today are the result
of overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in humans,
animals, and crops, as well as the spread of residues of these medicines in
soil, crops and water.”
The Director-General of the
UN Food and Agricultural Organization stated, “Antimicrobial resistance is a
problem not just in our hospitals, but on our farms and in our food, too.
Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility, both by using
antimicrobials more responsibly and by cutting down on the need to use them,
through good farm hygiene.”19
Learn What You Can Do Here.
of Manure Pit Hazards.” National Ag Safety Database.
Substances Portal – Hydrogen Sulfide/Carbonyl Sulfide.” Agency for Toxic
Substances & Disease Registry.
Health and Socioeconomic Issues Surrounding Concentrated Animal Feeding
Operations." Environmental Health Perspectives. February 2007.
“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.
8. “Asthma Symptoms Among Adolescents
Who Attend Public Schools That Are Located Near Confined Swine Feeding
Operations.” Pediatrics. July
Respiratory Inflammatory Response to the Swine Confinement Building
Environment.” National Ag Safety Database.
of Asthma on Society.” Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
11. Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013. Centers for Disease Control and
12. “Trends in Invasive Methicillin-Resistant Infections.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pediatrics. September
13. "MRSA Infection." The Mayo Clinic.
Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Strain ST398 In Present in Midwestern US Swine and
Swine Workers." University of Iowa. PLOS One,
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.
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. SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave SaveSave