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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Something in the Air? Whistleblowers and Agricultural Air Pollution

Food Integrity Campaign | March 17, 2023

Whistleblowers play a key role in protecting the health of our shared environment. This is especially true when it comes to mitigating the impacts of air pollutants stemming from industrial agriculture. In our previous blog, we examined how our food system can harm the quality of our water. In this blog, we’ll look at how the modern food system negatively affects the quality of our air and what whistleblowers are doing to transform our broken food system.

Air pollution from Industrial Agriculture

Impacts to communities

Ninety percent of the animals grown for food in the United States are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).[1]Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) are enclosed agricultural meat, dairy, or egg facilities where animals are kept, watered, and fed, as opposed to being left on pasture. This enables … Continue reading These industrial livestock facilities fill the air with volatile organic compounds from manure, pesticides, and fertilizers. Odor plumes from CAFOs, which often pervade nearby communities, contain respiratory and eye irritants including hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Communities located near CAFO’s experience higher rates of respiratory illness, asthma, chronic pulmonary disease and other health issues associated with poor air quality. A 2021 study found that 12,700 deaths were caused by air pollution associated with industrial livestock production—more deaths than attributed to coal-fired power plants. In 2021, FIC joined 23 organizations to file a legal petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to urge it to enforce federal air pollution laws against major polluters like animal feeding operations, something the agency has refused to do for two decades as part of an agreement with the industry. In July 2022, FIC and over 200 other organizations called on EPA Administrator, Michael Regan to step up EPA’s regulatory authority to protect vulnerable communities from CAFO pollution.

Impacts to CAFO workers and farmers

Air pollution from industrial agriculture not only impacts the neighbors living near these facilities, but it also injures those who work in CAFO’s. Thousands of animals are confined into small, enclosed spaces emitting toxic fumes along with the deadly air pollutants emitted from the animal waste storage areas. Toxic gases emanating from these facilities include hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, organic dust such as animal dander, allergens, endotoxins, volatile organic compounds and ammonia (which is a hazardous gas produced from decomposing manure). Workers in these conditions report watery eyes, difficulty breathing, cough, burning in their throats, nausea, sneezing and nasal congestion. More research is showing that people who work in these facilities day in and day out are subject to long-term lung and acute respiratory injuries like chronic bronchitis, asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, mucous membrane inflammation syndrome and accelerated yearly losses in lung function. The voices of workers and farmers enduring respiratory ailments as a result of their work are not always heard. In this industry, controlled by a few powerful corporations, retaliation is real. Our former whistleblower client and poultry contract grower, Craig Watts spoke in an interview with Civil Eats about the impacts of CAFO air pollution to farmers. Craig said, “The workers, the farmers, we’re all just cogs in the machine. We’re expendable resources. To the industry… it’s all about how cheap we can do it. They don’t care if we get sick or die, they’ll find somebody else.”

Impacts to meat processing workers

It’s not just “on-farm” activity that causes air quality sickness. Our society’s massive appetite for cheap food in a hurry has fueled our industrial food system and created unsafe workplace conditions to meet consumer demand. Better workplace air quality safety measures are needed to prevent harm to food plant workers. Notably, 37-year-old federal inspector, Jose Navarro, worked at a poultry plant in New York where the chemicals, peracetic acid (PAA)[2]PAA is a colorless bleaching agent used to remove bacteria from the carcasses of turkeys and chickens. The health risks associated with its use include damage to the heart, liver and lungs. and chlorine, were heavily used. Sadly, Jose Navarro died after his lungs bled out. His death in 2013 sparked investigations into the toxic chemicals being used in poultry processing plants.

FIC whistleblower clients have come forward and produced affidavits about the poor air quality and toxic chemicals at slaughter plants. Jessica Robertson was a USDA meat inspector who was sickened, along with her coworkers, after breathing chemicals at the turkey processing plant where she worked. Jessica spoke out about the harmful chemicals like PAA used in the poultry processing and how breathing them has compromised her health. Sherry Medina, another FIC whistleblower client and USDA meat inspector brought to light the serious health problems caused by the overuse of chemicals in the poultry industry. Sherry endured asthma, suffered organ damage and broke two ribs due to extreme coughing.

Protections for Whistleblowers

Many of our bedrock environmental protection laws—such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act—already authorize EPA to oversee emissions and discharges from CAFOs, but EPA has consistently exempted animal agriculture from standards meant to protect communities from industrial pollution. In FIC’s coalition work, we urged EPA to end the regulatory exceptionalism and hold accountable the industrial livestock agribusinesses profiting from the exploitation of vulnerable communities.

The good news is that there are whistleblower protections for truth-tellers who disclose potential threats to air quality, but the bad news is that many of these protections only have a 30-day statute of limitations. This means would-be whistleblowers must act swiftly to preserve their rights.

The Clean Air Act, for example, includes protections for whistleblowers. The Clean Air Act is a comprehensive statute establishing standards for air quality, acceptable pollutants, and related reporting and inspection procedures. The act was passed to protect people, animals, plants, habitats, and the atmosphere from the harmful effects of airborne pollution. The specific provisions of the statute are exhaustive, as the Act covers many aspects of air pollution. Whistleblower cases are most often brought when a company misrepresents its emissions levels or fails to comply with reporting and cleanup standards. An employer may not retaliate against an employee who reports any misreporting or noncompliance by the employer. Whistleblower coverage extends to all private-sector, federal, state and municipal employees in the United States.



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1 Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) are enclosed agricultural meat, dairy, or egg facilities where animals are kept, watered, and fed, as opposed to being left on pasture. This enables thousands of animals to be housed in a small amount of space.
2 PAA is a colorless bleaching agent used to remove bacteria from the carcasses of turkeys and chickens. The health risks associated with its use include damage to the heart, liver and lungs.