Yakima Valley residents have long suffered the ill effects of poor air and water quality due to the industrial model of agriculture and its pollution where they live. Here medical doctor Dean Effler, who lives in Yakima, weighs in…
Clearing the air on health effects of living near dairies
- Dean Effler, M.D.
- Feb 6, 2016
On Dec. 5, 2015, the Yakima Herald-Republic published a Saturday Soapbox in which the author claimed that living near a large dairy was beneficial. The author relied on an article from Science that summarized the potential benefits in terms of nasal allergy and asthma that can occur from childhood exposure to farm environment. This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis. Children in a farm environment and adults who lived in a farm environment as a child have marginally fewer allergic diseases. This trend seems to be adequately demonstrated by many studies. However, the author has cherry-picked his data to prove a point and has ignored other facts and studies.
In Yakima County we have over 60 confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the Lower Valley. Some have more than 5,000 cows on very few acres without green pasture. There is too much manure and urine. These wastes produce too much ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, endotoxins and particulate matter (PM 2.5), all of which worsen respiratory function. Noxious odors from CAFOs have been documented to cause worsening of quality of life and psychologic well-being for the neighbors. Whatever minor beneficial effect there might be from developing some allergic symptoms would be outweighed by the negative consequences of the day-to-day noxious environment.
Yakima County has the highest age-adjusted asthma hospitalizations rate in the state. A recent YAWN (Yakima Air Wintertime Nitrate Study) study by Washington State University and Central Washington University showed that elevated ammonia nitrate levels in Yakima during the winter resulted in elevated PM 2.5 levels and the source was likely from agriculture. Elevated PM 2.5 is a known cause of lung disease, asthma, preterm births and heart trouble. It seems obvious that the major source of this ammonia would be from the urine of 200,000 plus dairy cows in the Lower Valley.
A study in North Carolina showed children who lived closer to CAFOs had more asthma symptoms. This study also showed that there were more asthma symptoms in neighboring communities of a CAFO. A recent University of Washington study conducted in the Yakima Valley demonstrated that children with asthma had worse pulmonary function on days following higher versus lower ammonia concentrations (Loftus et.al., 2014). The ammonia concentrations increased with proximity to a CAFO. Bloomfield et. al. in 2006 stated that there is no evidence that prolonged exposure to a farm environment has a protective effect for adults for asthma and nasal allergies. In fact, farmers have a higher rate of occupational allergic disease.
While looking in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine for the article that the author of the recent Soapbox says shows that exposure to a livestock farm can be beneficial, I quickly found many other articles that claimed decreased respiratory function and increased symptoms in livestock work environments. It is the failure to mention these negative studies that allowed me to make the claim that the author was cherry-picking his data.
In summary, although farm/dairy exposures may slightly reduce the incidence of some allergies in some people, the other noxious factors cannot be ignored.
Dean Effler, M.D., lives in Yakima.