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Foul state of affairs found in feedlots

Factory farms are harmful to the public and the environment, researchers report.

November 17, 2006|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

California has more than 2,000 dairies, mostly in Tulare and Merced counties, and many have thousands of cows each. But the health risks to the dairy workers and their neighbors have gone unstudied, said Frank Mitloehner, director of the UC Davis Agricultural Air Emissions Center, who was not involved in the new reports.

UC Davis is launching a five-year study, led by Mitloehner, at dairies in Tulare and Merced counties, to examine the threat from air pollutants. Among the air pollutants from feedlots are ammonia; fine particles of manure, feed, soil and bacteria that can lodge in lungs; and endotoxin, which can inflame respiratory tissues and trigger asthma, bronchitis and allergies.

"There is potential for health effects, but in order to find out the intensity of them, we need to conduct these studies," Mitloehner said.

One of the new reports says a serious impact of feedlots "is their disruption of quality of life for neighboring residents," mostly in low-income and nonwhite communities.

"More than an unpleasant odor, the smell can have dramatic consequences for rural communities whose lives are rooted in enjoying the outdoors," says the report, compiled by researchers in Iowa, Illinois and North Carolina. "The highly cherished values of freedom and independence associated with life oriented toward the outdoors gives way to feelings of violation and infringement.... Homes become a barrier against the outdoors that must be escaped."

In water supplies, the biggest problems are nitrates and fecal bacteria, although experts have also recently discovered animal antibiotics and other drugs in waterways. The scientists recommended that private wells, which largely are unregulated, be monitored carefully near the factory farms.

The EPA was sued in 1989 by an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, for failing to regulate feedlots under the Clean Water Act. Fewer than 40% have permits for discharging pollutants because of EPA exemptions and lax federal and state enforcement, according to a 2003 report by what was then the General Accounting Office.

In June, the Bush administration proposed new regulations that would require feedlots to develop plans for controlling manure and obtain Clean Water Act permits.

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