Air Quality Health Impacts of CAFOs

What are CAFOs?

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) today are integral to the growth of the animal product market. Cattle, swine, and poultry CAFOs and related facilities generated more than $120 billion in 2004 and the industry has continued to grow (Aneja et al., 2006). However, this revenue does not reflect the negative health impacts that CAFOs have on surrounding communities.

North Carolina has become a popular location for swine CAFOs. In 2016, more than 6,500 swine, cattle and poultry operations were operating in the state (Waterkeepers Alliance, 2016). The operation of a swine farm includes confinement buildings, manure holding pits and land application of waste, all of which release toxic air pollution that affects the surrounding community (Heederik et al., 2007).

What are the health impacts of CAFOs?

CAFOs release multiple pollutants into the air. Over 331 different volatile organic compounds and fixed gases are released from North Carolina swine facilities (Schiffman et al., 2001). The most studied pollutants include hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, malodorous gases and particulate matter. These major pollutants can cause both short and long-term health effects and can lower the quality of life of a community. Malodor is the prominent concern of most communities surrounding CAFOs and has been linked to psychophysiological changes from exposure (Thu et al., 1997).

In North Carolina, there are more than 4,100 manure pits, almost half of which are located in Duplin and Sampson Counties (Waterkeepers Alliance, 2018). Vulnerable populations, such as low socioeconomic communities and populations that experience discrimination based on race or ethnicity, have higher susceptibilities to CAFO impacts due to poor housing, low income, poor health status, and lack of access to medical care (Ogneva-Himmelberger, 2015).

What are the next steps?

Despite the large number of lawsuits and settlements CAFOs have faced over the past few years, a very limited number of laws have been enacted to protect the communities. There has been some progress to improve this, such as in May of 2018 when the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reached a settlement with a coalition of community-based environmental groups to improve inspections and better protect surrounding communities (NC DEQ, 2018).

North Carolina must stop protecting corporations and instead focus on the health of its people. A more stringent process for issuing permits must be put in place to limit the number of animals in a certain area and to monitor the air emissions. In addition, stricter controls on where, how and how much waste is spread are needed to protect nearby residents.

To learn more about the health and policy impacts of CAFOs, read the full research review.


Aneja, V. P., Schlesinger, W. H., Nyogi, D., Jennings, G., Gilliam, W., Knighton, R. E., … Krishnan, S. (2006). Emerging national research needs for agricultural air quality. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 87(3), 25.

Heederik, D., Sigsgaard, T., Thorne, P. S., Kline, J. N., Avery, R., Bønløkke, J. H., … Merchant, J. A. (2007). Health effects of airborne exposures from concentrated animal feeding operations. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(2), 298–302.

NC DEQ. (2018, May 3). State reaches agreement on swine facilities with plans to strengthen protection for nearby communities. Retrieved from

Ogneva-Himmelberger, Y., Huang, L., & Xin, H. (2015). CALPUFF and CAFOs: Air Pollution Modeling and Environmental Justice Analysis in the North Carolina Hog Industry. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 4(1), 150–171.

Schiffman, S. S., Bennett, J. L., & Raymer, J. H. (2001). Quantification of odors and odorants from swine operations in North Carolina. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 108(3), 213–240.

Thu, K., Donham, K., Ziegenhorn, R., Reynolds, S., Thorne, P. S., Subramanian, P., … Stookesberry, J.. (1997). A Control Study of the Physical and Mental Health of Residents Living Near a Large-scale Swine Operation. Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, 3(1), 13.

Waterkeeper Alliance. (2016, June 22). Fields of Filth: Landmark Report Maps Feces-Laden Hog and Chicken Operations in North Carolina. Retrieved from

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