Editor’s Note: Devon Hall is the co-founder and program manager at the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH). REACH is a nonprofit that says its mission to address social economic and environmental inequities in the region around Duplin County, North Carolina. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
There are more than 2,500 industrial hog operations in North Carolina. (I use the term “operation” because these animal factories have little in common with the independent farms I knew growing up.)
These operations – along with a relatively small number of industrial facilities raising other animals – generate 10 billion gallons of feces and urine each year, most of which is stored in giant, open-air pits and sprayed on fields as fertilizer.
In Duplin County, where I live, pigs outnumber people almost 40 to 1. It’s known as the “hog capital of the world.” When hog operations spray manure, most people stay inside to avoid the stink. We put off gardening and hosting cookouts, keep our windows closed, and rely on costly air conditioning to keep cool.
But the smell isn’t the only problem. Thanks, in part, to scientific research that my organization and our allies cooperated in, we know that exposure to hog manure causes a range of health problems, including asthma, high blood pressure, persistent headaches, nausea and impaired lung function.
My neighbors and I don’t want to put anyone out of business, but we need stronger regulations to protect our health and our community. That means we have to take on the powerful agriculture industry. And to do that – and win – we need proof.
I began working as a citizen scientist in 2004, because I wanted to understand exactly what I was breathing and how it was likely to affect my health. And in partnering with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I helped conduct a study monitoring hundreds of students at middle schools located near industrial hog operations. We were able to establish a direct correlation between exposure to air pollution from the hog operations and symptoms of depressed respiratory function and other health problems in our children. REACH is using these results to fight for stronger protections at the state and national level.
But now, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to adopt a rule that would make studies like this significantly less powerful. The rule – deceptively named Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science – would prohibit the EPA from considering scientific studies unless the underlying data is available to the public. That means the EPA would be forced to ignore landmark studies demonstrating the risks associated with exposure to dirty air and water, because researchers cannot legally or ethically disclose personal health data or other confidential information about study participants.
In proposing this rule, the EPA took a page out of the tobacco industry playbook. Back in the 1990s, tobacco industry attorneys pioneered a strategy to distract the public from growing scientific evidence about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Instead of confronting unfavorable studies, these attorneys called for the public disclosure of research data – knowing full well that disclosure would be difficult to implement, thus slowing the development of necessary public health protections. Industry-aligned politicians soon took up the call. Now, the EPA is joining suit.
Ultimately, the EPA’s proposal would force Duplin County residents and other people across the country to choose between protecting our privacy and protecting our children, our health and our environment. Though former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt argued that this rule would ensure transparency, researchers and community members have important reasons for keeping some information confidential.
Participating in a public health study is like acting as a police informant. You’re providing critical information that could make everyone more safe, but you’re also putting yourself at risk. For example, imagine you’re a worker at an industrial hog facility. Would you agree to participate in a study assessing the safety of your working conditions if you knew that your name, your address, your medical history or your immigration status might eventually become public? What if there weren’t other job opportunities in your area?
In my community, people who speak out against industrial agriculture are sometimes subjected to threats and intimidation. I have been spoken to harshly by people associated with the pork industry who do not like the work I do. Other community members have been physically and verbally threatened.
The North Carolina Pork Council even sent a letter to researchers who studied the health risks of living near industrial hog operations, requesting that they provide the “identities of all persons who worked on or contributed to the [s]tudy (including persons interviewed).” According to one of the researchers, “the primary purpose of the Pork Council’s request appeared to be harassment and intimidation.” The EPA investigated intimidation in our community and, in January 2017, it expressed “grave concerns” about the way we have been treated.
The Pork Council issued a statement at the time saying “hog farmers are good neighbors who care deeply about protecting our water and air” and that “we welcome the opportunity to sit down with state regulators and those who live near our farms to address any concerns they may have.”
And, unfortunately, the government doesn’t have a perfect record of protecting our privacy. I know this first-hand. Once, I contacted the state regulatory agency to report an operator who broke the law by spraying manure in fields while it was raining, an activity that poses a serious risk of water pollution. Even though I asked to remain anonymous, I received a call back directly from the operator I had reported. It was clear to me that he had gotten my number from the agency. The government apologized to me later, but the damage was done. My anonymity had been violated.
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My first priority is protecting the community that I serve. That’s why I offered testimony two weeks ago at a public hearing about the EPA’s proposed rule. Between now and August 16, anyone can comment on the rule, and I would encourage others who share my privacy concerns to do just that.
Strong science – and the ability to participate in public health studies without fear of privacy breaches and retaliation – is essential to achieving the regulatory protections we need to keep our families and our communities safe. The EPA should put public health first and withdraw the proposed rule without delay.