Kentucky CAFO Facts
Where they are.   Who they are.   What they're doing.

How CAFOs harm Kentucky and Kentuckians

The toxic CAFO stink.

CAFOs smell awful. If you have any doubts about this, a "Tour de Stench" in Western Kentucky will convince you (watch a Tour video here). What causes the stink? Tons of untreated animal excrement, rotting carcasses, and other byproducts of factory "farming."

Two of main things you smell around CAFOs are hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and ammonia (NH3). Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs or a sewer. It is a deadly poison; its toxic effects on humans are described in the H2S Material Safety Data Sheet and the Centers for Disease Control - National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (CDC-NIOSH) Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards for H2S. Ammonia smells like ... well, ammonia. Its toxic effects on humans include loss of vision, headaches, nausea and pulmonary edema, as described in its Material Safety Data Sheet and its Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) limits the exposure to hydrogen sulfide of workers in general industry to 20 parts per million (ppm), the exposure of workers in construction or maritime trades 10 ppm (Details). OSHA limits the exposure to ammonia of all workers to 50 ppm (Details). According to OSHA, "Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries in the nation" due to toxic chemical exposure and other dangers (Details).

Unfortunately, OSHA does not protect the neighbors of factory farms, who often experience H2S and NH3 exposures well over the limits allowed for workers, and who suffer devastating health problems - constant headaches, blurred vision, difficulty breathing - as a result. Children are especially vulnerable. Just ask CAFO neighbors Bernadine Edwards in Mclean County, or Rhonda Free in Marshall County.

Poison gas attacks on their neighbors are not the only effects of CAFOs, however ...

CAFOs: Breeding grounds for pathogens.

CAFOs cram vast numbers of animals into small spaces. Just like kids at school or travelers on airplanes, animals confined in close quarters are more susceptible to contagious diseases. CAFO owners respond to this threat by constantly giving their animals antibiotic and antiviral drugs, usually mixed with their feed. Keeping their animals dosed with drugs keeps them from dying in CAFO-wide epidemics. But it has a consequence: multiple drug-resistant (MDR) pathogens.

A colony of bacteria growing in optimal conditions - in the warm, wet environment of an animal's body, for example - can double in size every 30 minutes. That means that one single bacterium can spawn a colony of 281,474,976,710,656 bacteria in 24 hours. That's 281 trillion bacteria. Compare that to the 2012 U.S. Federal budget of a paltry 3.7 trillion dollars.

When bacteria reproduce, they make mistakes copying their genes. Even after "proofreading" their DNA, bacteria get about one DNA base-pair wrong per billion (Details). At this error rate, one bacterium will generate about 300,000 genetic variants in 24 hours. Bacteria only have a few thousand genes, so the chances are good that every gene will be represented by 100 different variants after only 24 hours.

Some bacterial genes encode proteins that interact with antibiotics. When these proteins change, the susceptibility of the bacterium to antibiotics changes. Some changes make the bacterium resistant to antibiotics. Bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics are called multi-drug resistant (MDR) pathogens. The famous flesh-eating bacteria are often multi-drug resistant; that is one reason so many people who get them die.

Researchers at Eastern Michigan University have recently identified multiple strains of MDR bacteria in waterways downstream of CAFOs. Their recent paper, "Antibiotic resistance, gene transfer, and water quality patterns observed in waterways near CAFO farms and wastewater treatment facilities" published in Water, Air and Soil Pollution details their results. It has been suggested that the 2004-2007 H5N1 influenza ("bird flu") epidemic, which killed over 150 people and millions of birds, was caused in part by the use of badly-designed and administered flu vaccines by chicken farmers (see "H5N1 outbreaks and enzootic influenza" published in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases). In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued draft guidance calling for limits on the use of agricultural antibiotics in the United States. However, as of late 2011, FDA has yet to legally limit routine, non-therapeutic antibiotic use and has rejected petitions to ban antibiotics that are also used in humans, for which the risks of MDR pathogen outbreaks are the greatest.

So if you're driving by a CAFO, you might want to wear a mask. The next deadly epidemic may be brewing right now, at a CAFO near you ...

CAFO meat: check the ingredients!

The European Union forbids the importation of most U.S. beef. Why? Because treating food animals with growth hormines is illegal in Europe. The Europeans have figured out something that our government still hasn't grasped: eating meat that contains growth hormones is bad for your health. Scientists and consumer groups have figured it out: see discussions by Sustainable Table, Dr. Samuel Eptein, Health Child - Healthy World and Dr. Andrew Weil, University of Arizona. Most beef and dairy CAFOs in the U.S. feed their animals growth hormones to get them bigger faster, and sex hormones to make them fertile earlier. Do you really want to eat meat from over-grown, over-sexed animals?

Growth and sex hormones added to animal feed have been highly publicized, but are just the beginning the CAFO hormone story. CAFOs are highly stressful environments for animals, whose instincts tell them they should be living outside, moving around, and surrounded by a dozen or so of their kin, not thousands. Animals respond to stress, or "allostatic load" as it is called in the medical literature, by secreting "fight or flight" hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. You know what these hormones feel like: your heart pumps, you sweat, you sense danger everywhere, you want to hurt somebody. Chronic exposure to these hormones is bad for you; the consequences include heart disease, chronic hostility toward others, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's (see "Allostasis and allostatic load: Implications for neuropsychopharmacology" published in Neuropsychopharmacology). Do you really want to eat meat that's full of hormones that cause heart disease and Alzheimer's?

Health advisors routinely warn us that meat must be cooked thoroughly to kill all the pathogens that it may contain. Why is our meat full of pathogens? In Europe, raw meat is considered a delicacy - not much beats a good steak tartare with a raw egg on top for extra flavor. Why aren't Europeans worried about pathogens in raw meat and eggs? Maybe our U.S. habit of producing meat in factories, instead of on farms, has something to do with it ...

CAFO subsidies: The rich get richer.

American taxpayers spent almost 6 billion dollars subsidizing farmers in 2010 (that's almost $20 per citizen, including children). Nationwide, a little over a million farmers got something, but the top 10% of subsidy recipients collected 74% of the money, and 62% of America's farmers got nothing at all. In Kentucky, the top 10% collected 72% of the 2010 subsidies, while 65% of Kentucky farmers receive no subsidies at all. Most agricultural subsidies support row crops, mainly corn. Most corn grown in the U.S. feeds animals living in CAFOs.

Paying a handful of farmers a whole lot of money, and the rest practically nothing, grossly distorts the market for agricultural products. If you've ever wondered why meat from CAFOs is cheap, but organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, range-fed meat from your local farmer's market is expensive, now you know: it's because your government wants you to eat meat from CAFOs. Next time you see a factory "farmer" going on about the value of free enterprise, ask him or her how much he or she gets from Uncle Sam, and for what. The answers may be revealing, but be prepared to duck.