Only in a world gone terribly wrong would a piece of legislation designed to simply let people know what’s in the air they breathe be controversial. But such is the case in Maryland with this year’s Community Healthy Air Act (CHAA), a commonsense bill that requires the state Department of the Environment to start monitoring how much air pollution is coming from the hundreds of industrial poultry facilities, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, located on the Eastern Shore. The bill was driven by local residents who are concerned about the high rates of asthma and other illness in their communities that may be related to poor air quality.
For anyone living in the polluted shadow of these CAFOs, this bill is a long-time coming. Research shows that CAFOs release huge amounts of air pollution, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter, all of which can cause troubling human and environmental health impacts. Other studies have tracked the increased incidence of childhood asthma in people that live close to CAFOs, while up to 50% of poultry workers suffer from ammonia-related upper respiratory illness. Yet despite these documented impacts, the people of the Eastern Shore are left in the dark about the air that they and their children breathe every day.
What Eastern Shore communities do know is that they are suffering from increased rates of asthma in relation to other Marylanders. For example in 2009, the rate of emergency room visits for adults with asthma-related illnesses in Wicomico County, which is home to 110 CAFOs and 11 million chickens, was double the average for the rest of the state. That year, asthma-related hospitalizations cost Wicomico County nearly $1 million.
And these emissions from CAFOs don’t just impact local residents who breathe dirty air. Air pollution can also contaminate drinking water. Many residents on the Eastern Shore rely on private wells for drinking water, and high levels of nitrates in drinking water, including from ammonia deposition, have been associated with diabetes, various cancers and methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), a potentially fatal condition for infants.
— jackie (@JackieFilson) February 28, 2017
There’s also no ignoring the disproportionate environmental justice impacts of CAFOs on communities of color. The Wicomico County NAACP has been fighting the proposed siting of a ten building poultry complex in a community that is more than 80% African American. Other counties where African American populations are impacted by the concentration of large numbers of CAFOs, such as Somerset County, also have some of the poorest health outcomes in the state. Somerset County, which is 43% African-American, has some of the highest cancer rates in the state and the lowest average household income of any county in Maryland.
Although the Community Healthy Air Act requires the poultry industry to do nothing, the Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI), a trade group dominated by big poultry corporations like Perdue, still criticizes the CHAA, because it was introduced by legislators who are not from the Eastern Shore, as if caring for the health and safety of others should be limited by some arbitrary political boundary. But the unfortunate fact is that Eastern Shore elected officials fear that standing up for their own constituents means losing their next election because of the heavy hand of the poultry industry. The fact that this bill had to be introduced by out-of-district legislators at the request of in-district citizens doesn’t speak to any weakness in the CHAA, as DPI suggests, but it does speak volumes about the weakness of local legislators.
There is no reason for anyone to be against the CHAA, particularly after hearing the very compelling testimony of residents who spoke at the Senate hearing about how they worry about their health and the health of their children, because there is a stench so thick in the air from neighboring CAFOs that they can no longer sit in their own yards, open their windows, or enjoy a walk. Even a few local contract growers testified that they, too, care for a clean environment and healthy air, yet ended their testimony with some unexplained opposition to the bill. Their halfhearted testimony seemed to indicate that they know that the CHAA is the right path forward to protecting everyone on the Eastern Shore - both those who make a living in the poultry industry as well as those who have to suffer the impacts of living alongside it.