That smell does more than sting your nostrils: According to an article just published in the journal Science, factory-farm pollution with ammonia is actually costing the U.S. more in healthcare costs than farmers are making from those same factory farms. Based on recent research, the health costs associated with ammonia pollution from farms is $36 billion annually, while farmers who raise and export livestock bring in $23.5 billion. One recent study calculated that 5,100 people die prematurely each year because of ammonia from food production and factory-farm pollution.
The problem is that ammonia, which evaporates from the fertilizer used to grow the corn and soy fed to the animals, as well as from their waste, binds to small particulates in the air. The authors note that the problem is particularly bad on industrial farms that rely on diesel-powered machinery. Those particles get lodged deep in your lungs, and are known to cause heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. Due to the fact that these particles can travel relatively long distances, people in cities that are downwind of large industrial farms can suffer as greatly as people living right next to the farms. One air-quality researcher quoted in the piece called ammonia "the next big frontier for public health protection."
The Environmental Protection Agency has made some strides in recent years regulating power-plant emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which, like ammonia, bind to particulate matter and turn those tiny particles into deadly pollutants. But those efforts might be negated by ammonia, the authors write. And with a Chinese company's recent acquisition of Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork producer, the problem will only grow worse, they note. "With U.S. exports of pork to Asia continuing to rise, it may be a while before emissions in North Carolina and elsewhere start to head down," they note.
Bottom line? Buy pastured meat and dairy products. Research from the European Union has shown that animals—particularly cattle, which produce the most ammonia—that graze for longer periods of time during the day can emit as little as half the ammonia as animals in enclosed spaces being fed high-protein grains.
For more reasons to stick with pasture-raised and organic meat, read our series on animal welfare: