Proposed Poultry Operation Health Impact Assessment Flawed
Oct 27, 2016
An assessment intended to evaluate the potential health risks of a proposed industrial poultry operation has significant shortcomings, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) said in a letter to the Wicomico County Health Department. The letter raises serious questions about the process and content of the assessment, and calls for state and county officials to commission an independent study.
Several community members and organizations have expressed concerns about how a proposed 10-house industrial poultry operation outside the City of Salisbury, Maryland, could affect public health. The proximity of the proposed operation to the Paleochannel, an important drinking water source for Salisbury, is a particular worry to some residents. In response, the Wicomico County Health Department (WCHD) completed a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the operation in April 2016. The HIA’s stated goals were to “engage and inform the community and potential decision-makers on how, if at all, [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] CAFOs are linked to individual and community health outcomes.”
CLF’s analysis of the HIA found that the Health Department did not meaningfully consult a diverse group of stakeholders, omitted relevant research and known health risks from the assessment, and did not effectively address several potential health impacts in their recommendations. Further, the Health Department did not adequately communicate the HIA’s conclusions to the public, or even to groups identified by the HIA as key stakeholders. For instance, the Department identified CLF as a stakeholder, but did not contact CLF about the HIA at any point in the process. World Health Organization guidance suggests that stakeholders like CLF should have been made aware that the HIA was underway and should have had opportunities to provide input at multiple stages of the assessment.
“We strongly support local health departments’ efforts to examine CAFOs’ potential health risks and address community concerns,” said letter author Jillian Fry, PhD, a project director at CLF and faculty member in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We are also cognizant of the resource constraints many health departments face. But WCHD’s HIA process has been unnecessarily opaque, non-inclusive, and unresponsive to Wicomico County residents’ most pressing needs.”
CLF’s analysis found that the group of stakeholders identified by the WCHD was unduly narrow, and that not enough was done to consult with people who may be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the proposed CAFO. For instance, although the Health Department noted that “children from specific ethnic or racial groups” could be negatively affected by the poultry operation, it did not reach out to groups like Wicomico County NAACP, which could have provided valuable input.
Numerous health concerns commonly associated with CAFOs were neither discussed nor recognized in the HIA. For example, the WCHD’s examination of the health effects of CAFOs related to air quality focused solely on asthma and ignored other relevant respiratory health risks, such as upper respiratory illness, obstructive pulmonary disorders, chronic cough and phlegm, chronic bronchitis, and allergic reactions.
In addition, the Health Department concluded that the Paleochannel is not at risk of contamination based on a report from a hydrogeological consulting firm. But a closer read of the report shows that the consulting firm’s authors warn that the Paleochannel is vulnerable to nitrate contamination, particularly from agricultural activities, which was omitted from the assessment. In addition, the HIA does not account for risks posed by fires, floods, other natural disasters and weather events, or farm accidents.
As communities weigh the potential costs and benefits of expanding industrial poultry operations throughout the Delmarva Peninsula, Wicomico County’s HIA has taken on additional significance. The HIA’s findings were referenced in a discussion about CAFOs’ health impacts during an August 2016 meeting in Cecil County, Maryland. . CLF researchers are calling for Maryland and Wicomico County to commission an independent assessment that includes relevant health risks that were excluded from the WCHD’s HIA; makes recommendations that address these risks; and is grounded in the principles of transparency, inclusiveness, and stakeholder participation.
“County officials need to know how a proposed CAFO could affect community health before making decisions about things like zoning restrictions and air quality monitoring,” said Dr. Fry. “Health Impact Assessments can help officials take balanced, appropriate measures to mitigate potential health risks while building trust within their communities. The WCHD’s HIA was a missed opportunity, but hopefully it’s one that can be learned from.”
More information about CLF’s work on Industrial Food Animal Production.