July 24, 2009
I accompanied Dr. Roni Neff to southern Pennsylvania last week and this week to attend a school board and committee meeting in order to share information about public health threats associated with large-scale food animal production facilities. Roni was invited by the Peach Bottom Concerned Citizens Group to present this information because of concern about a proposed 2,450-head hog facility to be located about a quarter of a mile away from a site where eight South Eastern School District buses are parked up to 14 hours per day.
It was quite an eye-opening experience. Both meetings were contentious because of tensions between a farmer wanting to transition to a large-scale food animal operation and citizens’ concern about the impact this type of facility will have on the surrounding environment and human health. Debates such as this one (but not necessarily surrounding school buses) have been occurring around the country for decades as food animal production has become increasingly consolidated and dependent on industrial, large-scale operations where thousands of animals are raised in confined settings.
While attending the South Eastern School Board Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday evening, Roni was given the opportunity to present the scientific evidence regarding emissions from large-scale industrial food animal production facilities and potential health threats from these emissions. A few members of the school board asked questions following the presentation, and then audience members were allowed to make comments.
Some transportation committee members concluded that since this is only a proposed site at this point and if health problems develop as a result of the facility being a quarter of a mile away from the buses that they will look into the matter at that time. This conclusion is worrisome for a very important reason. It is unknown how many children that ride the buses will develop health problems due to the operation of the hog facility near the site where the buses are parked. If rates of associated health problems (e.g. asthma, MRSA) significantly increase they may not be discovered if no one is looking for these changes in a systematic way. If they do surface, it could be after significant time has passed and many children have already been exposed to the emissions from the facility.
To date, public health scientists have not specifically studied the health effects of parking school buses close to a large-scale hog facility, and this research is not likely to be carried out at this location. Therefore, health effects may only come to light if the resulting problems are serious and obvious enough to grab the attention of parents, doctors, public health professionals and decision makers. I am glad that the school board transportation committee listened to the scientific evidence related to this issue, and I hope they give careful thought to the adverse health effects associated with large-scale food animal production facilities.
– Jillian Fry