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When the Cows Come Home, You Won't Want to Be There

A study in this month's "American Journal of Agricultural Economics" shows a significant correlation between rising numbers of factory farm animals and increased infant mortality. The study found that an increase of 100 million pounds of farm animal flesh meant 123 more infant deaths for every 100,000 babies born. That means our shift in the last half century away from sustainable family farms and toward highly concentrated factory farms has put our babies in jeopardy.

When we think of factory farms (if we think of them at all), we usually think of crowded cows or penned-in pigs scarfing hay, getting fat, and standing around in their own excrement. And in fact, our nation's factory farm animals produce more than three times as much manure as the U.S. human population. One could easily imagine that water contamination or e. coli poisoning from all this animal waste is the primary threat to human health.

However, the AJAE study found that, in fact, the majority of livestock-related infant deaths were the result of respiratory distress syndrome, meaning the noxious fumes wafting off of California's mega-dairies or North Carolina's jam-packed pig farms aren't just an olfactory offense—they're downright deadly. As hundreds of thousands of animals are crammed in to smaller and smaller spaces, airborne concentrations of hazardous chemicals like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide skyrocket in the communities where these facilities are located.

Meanwhile, our government's foot-dragging over whether to regulate air pollution from factory farms is killing our most vulnerable citizens. As one of his final acts on his way out of the White House, now ex-president Bush signed off on a rule that lets these factory farms forego the reporting of releases of toxic substances into the air and water. So communities will have no way of knowing just how much pollution they are exposed to. And for those who live and work near these facilities, what they don't know can kill them.

Earthjustice is fighting to make sure these prolific polluters are finally held accountable for the havoc they wreak on our environment and our health. With a new administration at the helm, maybe we'll finally see some much-needed action from Washington.

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.