Pig farm foes turn up noses at expansion

Sun Special Report

December 18, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

DELTA, Pa. -- Mark and Diane Thomas were accustomed to farm life when they moved from Maryland into a charming 1830s log home on 19 acres.

But in the two years since then - as Diane suffered headaches and a persistent skin infection and her husband and two children struggled with diarrhea and other digestive problems - they began to suspect that their health problems were caused by the hog farm next door. And they grew further alarmed when the farm announced plans this year to expand from 450 pigs to 4,400.

At a public hearing tonight, the Thomases and other opponents of the expansion intend to call a public health scientist whose research supports their argument to testify on their behalf.

The zoning battle just across the Maryland state line is one of a growing number of challenges across the country linking human illness to industrial-style farm operations. Although such battles have long hinged on water pollution from animal waste, researchers cite mounting evidence, including recent studies by the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, that pig and chicken farms can produce drug-resistant bacteria when animals regularly get antibiotics.

Spread by fans from large feeding buildings, these supergerms can escape into the air, as well as to streams and underground drinking water supplies, potentially threatening the health of neighbors, according to the Maryland studies.

"I have no problem with farmers, farming or the smell of farms," said Mark Thomas, 45, a major in the Maryland Air National Guard who grew up on farms. "But it doesn't seem fair to me to put everybody else's health at risk."

The National Pork Producers Council, a trade group, acknowledges that farmers nationwide routinely put antibiotics in their hogs' feed to keep them healthy and help them grow, but it asserts that the practice is harmless.

David Gemmill, who owns the 300-acre hog farm next to the Thomases and whose family has raised livestock on the land for five generations, said his farm does not pollute and that his animals receive antibiotics only when ill. He said it's impossible that his pigs are making anyone sick.

"People get sick every day from something - don't bring that back to the farmer," said Gemmill, 54.

If the expansion is approved, he said, his family hopes to sign a contract with Hershey Ag of Marietta, Pa., which would own the hogs and choose their feed. The company says its practice regarding antibiotics is limited. Pigs receive the drugs only in their first four weeks, and older pigs receive them only if sick, according to company owner, Brent Hershey.

"We do not utilize antibiotics on a routine basis," he said.

Regardless of how the local debate is resolved, researchers say that people who live near hog farms might have good reason to worry about their health. The recent studies raise new questions about farms referred to as CAFOs, or "concentrated animal feeding operations," which raise large numbers of animals in buildings.

University of Maryland microbiologist Amy Sapkota co-authored studies published in July 2007 and February 2005, both documenting antibiotic-resistant bacteria escaping from an unidentified Mid-Atlantic hog operation.

In one study, 98 percent of 124 bacteria samples collected from air inside a CAFO contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In another, she found that streams and underground water supplies downhill from the farm had high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including E. coli and fecal coliform. The movement of resistant bacteria from swine CAFOs into the environment "can be extensive," her report concluded.

In addition, a 2000 University of North Carolina survey of 155 people found increased rates of headaches, diarrhea, runny noses, sore throats, coughing, digestive problems and breathing ailments among those who lived near CAFO hog farms.

"Neighbors of CAFOs across the country have reported similar symptoms," Sapkota said.

Opponents of the expansion in Pennsylvania have called Sapkota to testify at a zoning hearing on the plan tonight. Sapkota said township officials should prohibit more CAFOs because tests by the U.S. Geological Survey have shown underground drinking water supplies in the area have already been contaminated by animal waste from nearby farms.

"There should be a moratorium on new CAFOs in sensitive areas like this," Sapkota said. Her warnings are echoed by other scientists. Other studies by the University of Illinois and researchers in Canada documented the rise of drug-resistant bacteria among both pigs and farm workers.

The problem might extend beyond pig farms. Half of 16 poultry workers who were recently examined in Maryland and Virginia were carrying antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria, suggesting chicks receiving the drugs pose a disease threat, according to a study published yesterday by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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