The campaign to get people to “Eat More Chicken” seems to be working: A according to the Delmarva Poultry Institute, from 2005-2015, the amount of chickens produced on the Eastern Shore increased by more than half a billion pounds (from 3.3 to 3.9 billion pounds). But as the poultry industry continues to build hundreds of new houses containing bigger birds — and more manure — each year, Eastern Shore communities are bearing the burden.
Chicken houses don’t have smokestacks, but they do generate air emissions that can threaten public health and clean water. But because no one monitors these emissions, we don’t know how much this pollution is affecting the health of neighboring communities and their residents or nearby waters, including the Chesapeake Bay.
Airborne contaminants from industrial poultry operations include ammonia, particulate matter, endotoxins and microorganisms. Exposure by breathing can lead to serious adverse health effects, including asthma and bronchitis.
Increasingly, these environmental burdens fall on communities of color and low-income Marylanders, and counties with a large poultry presence have some of the poorest health outcomes in the state. Wicomico County, which is poised to approve its largest ever chicken farm, already has among the highest rates of E.R. visits due to asthma and some of the highest rates of lung disease, heart disease and diabetes in Maryland. Somerset County, whose residents and families are over 40 percent African American, has high rates of cancer and the lowest average household income of any Maryland county.
And it’s not just a public health concern: Ammonia emissions contain nitrogen, a major pollutant of the Chesapeake Bay and our local rivers and streams. EPA estimates by 2020 that ammonia will be responsible for more than half of total nitrogen deposits in the bay.
Contaminants from chicken manure have also been found in groundwater near Maryland chicken operations. The effects on ground water are significant. Nitrate contamination of drinking water increases the risks of having thyroid conditions, birth defects, diabetes and various cancers. It has even been linked to “blue baby syndrome.”
When community members asked for public health ordinances related to industrial-sized poultry operations, their local officials basically said their hands were tied and that “additional data is needed to study the impact CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] may have on the air quality in surrounding areas.”
It’s true that local governments have limited resources and expertise to conduct this kind of monitoring, and air pollution flows across county boundaries. But the state does have those resources. The Maryland Department of the Environment must help the public understand and address any public health or water quality impacts of industrial chicken production.
Just as MDE monitors air emissions from many different pollution sources across the state — including a brand new monitoring station in Pasadena, in Anne Arundel County, set up at the request of local officials — they should monitor air emissions on the Eastern Shore from the poultry industry. All Marylanders deserve the same protections from air pollution, no matter where they live.
Last legislative session, I introduced the Community Healthy Air Act at the request of Eastern Shore residents who traveled far from their homes to Annapolis to ask my colleagues and me for help. This common-sense proposal would require MDE to conduct a one-time study to identify and monitor all air pollutants from factory farms and report back to the legislature on its findings. The bill would aid in protecting public health and the bay. It would be the first big step toward creating a safeguard from air emissions from factory farms.
Not surprisingly, “big chicken” opposed this simple public health measure. “Eat More Chicken” may not be as healthy as we thought.
The Hogan administration should study air emissions from industrial chicken farms to better understand their effect on public health and clean water, especially as the poultry industry continues to grow and the bay clean-up effort progresses. If they fail to act, my colleagues in the General Assembly and I will gladly lead the way .
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. is a Democrat representing Montgomery County and a candidate for governor. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.