When most people think about air pollution, they may imagine power plant smokestacks or car tailpipes. But an alarming new study forces us to think about deadly air pollution from another source: factory farms.

New research finds that air pollution from agriculture causes more than 17,000 deaths every year. That’s even more than the deaths from pollution generated by coal plants.

The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attributes the vast majority of these deaths to factory farm livestock production — mostly due to the toxic ammonia in the vast quantities of manure these farms produce.

This industrial-scale pollution should not surprise us: U.S. livestock production is dominated by industrial-scale factory farming.

As folks who live near massive factory farms can tell you, these operations often store animal waste in cesspools (or “lagoons”), which can cause dangerous water pollution when they leak, spill, or breach. Factory farms spread or spray the liquid manure waste on fields to dispose of it, creating unbearable and sickening odors for nearby residents.

These operations don’t just pollute nearby water sources or create foul odors — they contribute to thousands of deaths every year.

One might assume that state regulators and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would take these threats to human health and safety seriously. Unfortunately, they’ve largely given Big Ag a pass.

Historically, the EPA has done little to treat factory farms as sources of pollution. During the Trump administration, the agency even exempted factory farms from federal pollution-reporting requirements for ammonia and other toxic emissions that are supposed to apply to all industries.

State agencies are no better. When this new research was published, Big Ag’s response was to claim a clean bill of health by local authorities as its defense.

Pork giant Smithfield, for instance, hid behind a 2019 report from North Carolina that found no significant air quality problems around the company’s factory hog farms. Smithfield failed to point out that the study was designed to produce this outcome and protect the hog industry —  because the state actually failed to monitor areas close to the factory farms.

Instead of taking responsibility for their damage to public health and reining in their pollution, companies like Smithfield have embarked on a PR blitz that tries to sell us on the idea that animal waste is actually a form of “renewable energy.”

The factory farm biogas business is booming in states like California and North Carolina, thanks to corporate greenwashing campaigns peddling the idea that massive “digesters” can trap methane emissions from manure and feed it into gas pipelines as a “renewable natural gas.”

Don’t believe the hype.

Digesters are basically small (and expensive) gas refineries that are prone to explosions and spills and create dangerous air pollutants — in fact, they actually increase the toxic ammonia emissions that are killing people.

They don’t magically solve the manure problem either. “Digested” manure still must be disposed of, and actually poses an even greater water pollution threat than the undigested waste.

The communities across the country — from North Carolina to Iowa to central California — that are forced to live with factory farm pollution have been left with no meaningful recourse for these threats for far too long.

We don’t need feel-good hype about factory farm techno-fixes. We need to stop the expansion of factory farms — and we need environmental regulators to finally begin treating them as the industrial-scale polluters that they are.

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Tarah Heinzen

Tarah Heinzen is the Legal Director at the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.