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Is the pork you eat raised in a sewer?

A discussion of the science linking sewer pipes and hog confinement buildings

We have unwittingly loosed an environmental disaster upon ourselves. We have inadvertently adopted parts of the sewer industry's technology for our hog confinement systems without the federally required safeguards or the end sewage treatment process. We have taken a system used to transport raw sewage and inappropriately adopted it to raise meat for human consumption. It is my claim that if you eat pork raised in confinement, you are eating pork raised in a sewer pipe.

As you can see by the drawing on the next page, both a sewer pipe and a hog confinement building are closed structures with raw sewage in the bottom which is constantly generating poison sewer gases. Some confinements have a storage tank directly underneath the hogs. Others have a slope system which collects the sewage which is then periodically flushed or pumped to an outside lagoon or slurry tank. Similarly a sewer pipe is slightly slanted so that sewage flows downhill. Human sewage, unlike hog sewage, is ultimately treated and rendered safe to the environment.

As in a sewer pipe, sewage in a confinement building is constantly generating the poison gases hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. If sewer personnel are to perform and work in a sewer environment, called a "confined space" in the industry, many federally mandated procedures must be followed and federally mandated equipment must be used. These requirements are a result of understanding the "whys" of sewer industry related deaths and diseases from hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. One of the most important requirements is the ventilation of the work space so that workers are not overcome or killed by the poison gases. Similarly, confinement buildings must constantly be ventilated so workers and hogs are not killed by these same gases.

Unlike the strict regulation in the sewer industry which allows only short, regulated shifts in a confined space, workers in confinements have no education about or regulation of the dangerous environment in which they must work. That the two environments are the same is evident in the studies that have been conducted in both industries concerning the gases present, the diseases caused by those gases and the deaths caused by those gases.

The scientific studies of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia underpinning federal regulation of the sewer industry have been accepted for 30 years. Likewise, the federal regulations themselves have been settled law for 30 years and no questions exist about their correctness.

There are scientific papers studying these same gases, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, in confinements. Some of those papers are:

* "Respiratory Dysfunction in Swine Production Facility Workers," Kelley J. Donham, MS, DVM; Stephen J. Reynolds, Ph.D., CIH; et al., American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1995.

* "A Control Study of Health and Quality of Life of Residents Living in the Vicinity of Large Scale Swine Productions," K. Thur, K. Donham; et al., Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, 1997.

* "Air Quality Assessments in the Vicinity of Swine Production Facilities," Stephen J. Reynolds, Kelley J. Donham, et al., Journal of Agromedicine, 1997.

* "Longitudinal Evaluation of Dose-Response Relationships for Environmental Exposures and Pulmonary Function in Swine Production Workers," S. Reynolds, K. Donham, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 1996.

* "Field Comparison of Methods for Evaluation of Vapor/Particle Phase Distribution of Ammonia in Livestock Buildings," S.J. Reynolds, D. Y. Chao, et al., Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, 1998.

There are dozens and probably hundreds of other studies worldwide concerning gases and human diseases caused by those gases in confinement systems.

A sample from these studies will show they are concerned with some of the same gases and resulting diseases as are found in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations concerning hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. From the confinement studies:

"Approximately 60% of swine production workers complain of at least one respiratory symptom, most of which are acute symptoms. Among this group of workers with respiratory symptoms, approximately 30% also experience chronic bronchitis, 30% have reactive airway disease and 30% experience episodes of organic dust toxic syndrome. These conditions can be directly attributable to exposure to aerosolized dust and its biologically active constituents (endotoxin, allergens) in addition to gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide."

"Compared to control populations of urban workers and crop farmers, workers in enclosed livestock environments have a higher prevalence of respiratory symptoms such as cough, phlegm, wheezing and dyspnea. Confinement workers also exhibit decreased pulmonary function indicative of both chronic and acute effects (Boyer, 1974; Thelin, 1984; Stahuliak-Berinc, 1977; Brouwer, 1986; Holness, 1987; Donham, 1989; Reynolds, 1993; Donham, 1984; Muller, 1986; Petro, 1978)."

Pigs are affected by these gases the same as people. The original OSHA limits for humans in part were established, ironically, from studies on pigs. From the Federal OSHA Rules and Regulations:

The ACGIH (1986/Ex. 1-3) believes that an eight-hour TWA limit is necessary for ammonia because a study by Stombaugh, Teague, and Roller (1960/Ex. 1-29) reports that pigs exposed continuously to 103 to 145 ppm ammonia reduced their consumption of food and lost weight. The ACGIH interprets this study to mean that systemic toxicity occurs as a result of chronic exposure to ammonia. However, OSHA interprets this study differently, believing instead that it shows a secondary effect of the irritation traditionally associated with ammonia exposure. That is, in OSHA's view, these pigs stopped eating because they were experiencing too much respiratory and eye irritation to be interested in food.

The more recent studies on humans indicate adverse effects from ammonia at concentrations as low as 7 ppm.

Now, from the OSHA studies on hydrogen sulfide (which the Minnesota Pollution Control Association has measured at 30 times the federal limit at confinement sites):

"Summary of toxicology: Hydrogen sulfide gas is a rapidly acting systemic poison which causes respiratory paralysis with consequent asphyxia at high concentrations. It irritates the eyes and respiratory tract at low concentrations. Inhalation of high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (1,000 to 2,000 ppm) may cause coma after a single breath and may be rapidly fatal; convulsions may also occur. Exposure to concentrations of hydrogen sulfide above 50 ppm for one hour may produce acute conjunctivitis with pain, lacrimation and photophobia; in severe form this may progress to keratoconjunctivitis and vesiculation of the corneal epithelium. In low concentrations, hydrogen sulfide may cause headache, fatigue, irritability, insomnia and gastrointestinal disturbances; in somewhat higher concentrations it affects the central nervous system, causing excitement and dizziness. Prolonged exposure to 250 ppm of hydrogen sulfide may cause pulmonary edema. Prolonged exposure to hydrogen sulfide results in increased susceptibility, so that eye irritation, cough, and systemic effects may result from concentrations previously tolerated without any effect. Rapid olfactory fatigue can occur at high concentrations."

And the OSHA ammonia studies:

"Summary of toxicology: Ammonia vapor is a severe irritant of the eyes, especially the cornea, the respiratory tract and skin. Inhalation of concentrations of 2,500 to 6,500 ppm causes dyspnea, bronchospasm, chest pain and pulmonary edema which may be fatal; production of pink frothy sputum often occurs. Consequences can include bronchitis or pneumonia; some residual reduction in pulmonary function has been reported. In a human experimental study which exposed 10 subjects to various vapor concentrations for five minutes, 134 ppm caused irritation of the eyes, nose and throat in most subjects and one person complained of chest irritation; at 72 ppm several reported the same symptoms; at 50 ppm, two reported nasal dryness and at 32 ppm only one reported nasal dryness."

In effect, the diseases and dangers are the same in sewers and confinements, which you would expect because the gases and sewage and closed environment are the same.

It has been mentioned to me that ag industry people are going to argue with the studies on confinements. I think that misses the point. Because sewage in a closed environment -- generating hydrogen sulfide and ammonia -- is common to both sewer pipes and confinements, we know for certain, from the federal studies, what the effects on humans and the hogs will be. I doubt the ag industry experts will want to argue with OSHA over its hydrogen sulfide and ammonia regulations.

We know that humans in the confinement industry have died from sewer gases. We know that thousands of hogs in confinements have died from sewer gases. We know that people working in confinements suffer the same diseases as sewer workers. We know that pathogens associated with the sewage and antibiotic resistant bacteria have been found in wells and waterways around confinements. We know that spills of untreated hog manure kill aquatic life the same as spills of untreated human waste. We know these sewer gases from confinements are constantly vented directly into the air and into the neighborhoods surrounding confinements.

So, we now know that sewer pipes and confinement systems are the same. I suggest to you that if you eat pork raised in a confinement, you are eating pork raised in a sewer. There can be no technological fix to make confinements safe because confinements, like sewer pipes, always have sewage and poison gases. Therefore, I believe confinements are an inappropriate technology for agriculture and should be immediately phased out. Environmental, people and pig-friendly systems exist today (such as hoop houses with deep beds) which can handle production without stinking up the countryside and harming or killing people, animals and places.

Because this was an inadvertent rather than an intentional outcome of the rush to progress, I believe it is incumbent upon us all to share in the costs of the transition to non-polluting, non-dangerous technologies. We know what we've done and we know what to do about it.

Non-shared traits of confinement buildings

* Sewage not treated -- therefore constant generation of poisonous gases

* Human entry not regulated

* No education for workers

* Pigs live whole life in poisonous gas environment (sewer)

* Buildings and lagoons constantly discharge poison gases into the neighborhood

* Workers get diseases from gases

* Non-treated sewage is an environmental disaster waiting to happen

* Legal for industrial ag to exhaust poisonous sewer gases into environment

Shared traits

* Closed (confined) space

* Sewage in bottom

* Poisonous gases generated from waste which kill people and animals

* Must ventilate for human/animal entrance

* If a problem occurs with ventilation people and pigs will die within 30 minutes

* Medical problems from prolonged contact with those gases

Non-shared traits of sewer pipe

* Sewage ultimately treated

* Federal regulations cover all human entry into a confined space (OSHA Regulations)

* Illegal to have open sewer in US (unlike Mexico) or to exhaust sewer gases into environment

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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