Duke report shows spikes in health problems around NC hog farms

In this July 21, 2017 photo, young hogs are seen at a hog farm in Farmville,
In this July 21, 2017 photo, young hogs are seen at a hog farm in Farmville,

Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina’s $2.9 billion hog industry hard, drowning 5,500 hogs and flooding dozens of waste lagoons.

But a much bigger blow may come from a Duke University research report published just days after the deadly storm departed.

The report in the North Carolina Medical Journal shakes the foundations of the hog industry’s claim that while large-scale hog farms sometimes give off a bad odor, there’s no evidence that they harm the health of people who live nearby.

A team of Duke Health medical researchers provides such evidence in its report: “Mortality and Health Outcomes in North Carolina Communities Located in Close Proximity to Hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.” The report strongly suggests that the CAFOs — that is, industrial-scale hog farms — are seriously affecting the health of people who live within a few miles of the farms.

The report does not prove that large hog farms are responsible for the health problems, but it reveals spikes in the incidence of diseases and health conditions in the surrounding communities. In its conclusion, the report says, “Southeastern North Carolina communities located in close proximity to hog CAFOs are characterized by poor indicators of health that are not solely due to the impact of converging demographic, socioeconomic, behavioral, and access-to-care factors, but are also due to the additional impact of multiple hog CAFOs located in this area.”

The report’s lead author is Julia Kravchenko, a medical doctor and an assistant professor with Duke’s department of surgery who participates in the department’s Environmental Health Scholars Program. She said in an interview, “We can tell that proximity to large hog farms is definitely associated with worse health outcomes for certain diseases.”

Juries have awarded more than $500 million — later reduced by state award limits — to neighbors of North Carolina hog farms who filed nuisance suits against the state’s largest hog producer, Smithfield Foods. But those complaints only cited the farms’ noise, odor and other quality-of-life issues. If the farms’ use of waste lagoons and spray dispersal methods are tied to harmful health effects, the industry could face far more costly lawsuits.

The Duke researchers analyzed public health data from eastern North Carolina zip codes with heavy hog farm concentrations. The data included “mortality rates, hospital admissions, and emergency department usage for health conditions potentially associated with hog CAFOs — anemia, kidney disease, infectious diseases, and low birth weight.”

Many residents of counties with large concentrations of hog farms are lower-income and prone to more health problems because of poor diets and lack of access to medical care. But when the researchers compared the eastern North Carolina communities to equally low-income communities elsewhere in North Carolina, those who live close to hog farms had a significantly higher incidence of disease and chronic health conditions.

The Duke findings should alarm North Carolina state legislators — Democratic and Republican — who’ve been protecting the hog industry as an economic engine of these counties. The local economy may benefit from farms raising thousands of hogs in close quarters, but the resulting pollution of air and water may be taking a toll on the health of thousands of people. An analysis of state data conducted by the Environmental Working Group, which was not part of the Duke study, estimated that 650,000 North Carolinians live within three miles of a large hog farm.

Fortunately, Duke is not planning to stop with this report. Kravchenko said the research team is preparing to publish papers on asthma and cancer spikes near hog farms. The medical researchers are also seeking grants to go into the field and explore health conditions in communities located near hog farms.

“It’s time to move forward,” Kravchenko said. “People have lived in this situation for a very long time.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com