Asthma Goes Rural, Thanks to Amnesty for Polluters


Under a new plan by the Bush administration, more rural youngsters in New York and elsewhere will reap the heart and lung benefits ghetto youth enjoy as local animal factories stink it up with complete impunity for at least the next couple of years.

Slaughterhouses will be free to spew pollutants for at least two years as long as they comply with an emissions-monitoring program. Conveniently enough, compliance doesn’t involve any more work than already required under the Clean Air Act.

Physicians for Responsible Medicine have long linked the growing increase in kiddie asthma to air pollution, belying recent reports suggesting that mouse droppings and cockroaches are behind city kids’ breathing problems. Car smog, free-floating ozone, and the yellowish sulfur dioxide belched from old power plants are the most important forces behind the doubling of asthma rates since the eighties, the activist doctors say. And black children may suffer the most, since nearly 80 percent of them nationwide live within 30 miles of a power plant. In New York City alone, an estimated one in four black children has trouble breathing.

Still, upstate New Yorkers need not feel left behind. Having already saturated the Midwest, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (industry jargon for huge meat and dairy processors) have been creeping into the Empire State, causing what local activists call the fastest growing public health crisis in New York. Complaints filed by people who live in CAFO-dominated towns like those in Cayuga and Erie counties talk about wall-penetrating ammonia stench, dirty ground water, nausea, and burning eyes. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and local health departments have had little to say, but science has caught on. Exposure to the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in animal factories causes bronchitis and heart swelling, say researchers at Iowa State University.

Paradoxically, as Bush administration relaxes the few controls left on the animal industry, the courts are recognizing the health risks assumed by those living anywhere near meat and dairy CAFOs. Tyson foods just settled a big lawsuit brought by three Kentucky residents claiming that breathing chicken-house ammonia made them sick. Horror stories of rural stench abound. Last month a Georgia TV station reported that flies from a Harris County chicken CAFO were driving residents crazy, even terrorizing their children.
Plagues of flies aside, animal excrement has been regulated by the Clean Air Act. Presumably the big fines levied against violators served as some deterrent. But thanks to an agreement signed the day after the Bush inauguration, massive meat processors like Tyson Foods (which has the distinction of owning one of three U.S. slaughterhouses held up by Human Rights Watch as a violator of international work-place standards) will soon be free to churn fresh country air into out-house smog while the EPA investigates the increasing problem of slaughterhouse pollution. The processors just pay a flat, one-time fee for assumed past transgressions. It’s a sweet deal for Tyson, which, coincidentally, helped pay for the Bush inauguration in DC.