Growing up in North Carolina, I often waved to people as they swayed on their front porch swings and drank in the fragrance of pine needles and wisteria blossoms. Those days are long gone, and now, in many areas breathing fresh air isn’t even an option.
The change in North Carolina happened because hog farming started to mimic factory chicken farming: long narrow buildings holding hundreds to thousands of hogs. Industrial farming is highly automated: the feed is piped in and gases and dust are blown out. The hog urine and feces travel in flushes of water into cesspools deeper than most wells, and the waste is later sprayed across fields. Ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and the tiniest particulates of hog fecal waste stayed suspended in the air making the entire regions smell like port-a-johns of pig excrement. The farms started in 1970s and by 2006 (the year for which most current numbers are available on the NC Pork Council website), there were 18 million hogs sold in the Tar Heel state: that was two hogs per every person in the entire state.
How does one learn to live among the pervasive smell of shit? During a recent trip to North Carolina, I met Naeema Muhammad, a community organizer, who described how children get off the school bus, hold their breath, and dash into their homes. People keep their windows closed even when they don’t have air conditioning. But the smells permeate. People complained, not just of the odor, but of headaches, dizziness, irritated eyes, nausea, and unusual health symptoms. The state government put the burden of proof on the affected people, not the pork industry: show us the evidence of dirty air or fouled water, they said.
To respond, people needed access to science, and they got it through a type of citizen science called community-based participatory research.
I met Naeema, Gary Grant, director of Concerned Citizens of Tillery (founded in 1978), and Steve Wing, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to learn about the research. As they and other collaborators brought communities together to share experiences, a disturbing pattern of environmental racism emerged: poor, rural people of color were bearing a disproportionate brunt of pollution from hog farms.
Wing led the analysis of more than 2,500 industrial hog farms, and, adjusting for population density, found that areas with the highest percentage of poor people had 25 times as many hogs as the wealthiest areas, and communities with the highest percentage of people of color had 10 times as many hogs as communities with the highest percentage of white people. With these findings, the hog waste began to hit the proverbial fan, and the next step was to empirically measure health impacts.
In one study from 2003-2005, in 16 communities, the team set up automated recorders to measure air quality, including hydrogen sulfide, dust, and endotoxins. At the same time, just over 100 people took part in the participatory research focused on their health. Twice a day they sat outside for 10 minutes, then collected saliva and measured their blood pressure and lung function on machines that provided records with date-time stamps. Later, the saliva samples were analyzed for immunoglobulin A, an indicator of stress level. Individuals also recorded any immediate physical symptoms, mood, and quality of life.
Steven Wing carried out the statistical analyses and noticed a simple pattern in the data: when hydrogen sulfide levels peaked, people reported more symptoms of ill health, mood changes, and elevated blood pressure.
The research was empowering because the scientific knowledge was a currency people could spend in discussions with law-makers and lawyers. These results also validated individual experiences, though also prompted the industry to fund attempts to diminish research findings, such as a literature review in which authors spent 4 months comprehensively retrieving almost 5,000 articles, only to spend subsequent months screening out papers until the final review drew conclusions from only seven studies. Even with those seven, the worst the authors could assert was to imply the problems stem from allegories; they found “inconsistent evidence of a weak association between self-reported disease in people with allergies or familial history of allergies.”
People need access to science because knowledge conveys power. Over the years, research has influenced various moratoria and bans on cesspools and spray fields for new facilities. Yet existing industrial hog farms persist with cesspools and spray fields. Environmental racism remains the true price of ham. During my visit to North Carolina, I realized that science is inherently a radical endeavor, even though it can serve good or bad intentions. Ultimately, ignorance is always the friend of oppression. Knowledge, when coproduced via citizen science, is a consistent ally of justice.