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Ruffled Feathers at Wicomico County Town Hall

By: Claire Fitch

It was 9:30 at night. The 100 or so people attending the Poultry Town Hall Meeting had been listening to a panel of speakers for two and a half hours, and the staff was ready to close up for the night. But the Q&A session would not wind down, and the Wicomico County Council President took the microphone to refute some points made by a team of us at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. (cf., this letter.)

The town hall took place in Salisbury, Maryland, at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center, where the County Council President questioned the relevance of the evidence we presented on the relationship between public health and broiler operations. Our letter—sent to the Wicomico County Health Officer in January—is a review of the public health risks associated with industrial-scale broiler chicken production, which is already dominant on the Delmarva Peninsula and is expanding.

The impetus for the town hall is a proposed broiler operation near Salisbury that would include up to 13 broiler houses (holding approximately 30,000 birds each) and would sit right on top of the paleochannel, the public drinking water source for Salisbury residents. The Council President said he was in a difficult position to consider the evidence reviewed in our letter, and that he wanted to see studies that were conducted specifically in Wicomico County before considering further actions to protect public health (such as the adoption of a local health ordinance). Fortunately, our own Dr. Jillian Fry was on the panel and responded directly to his comments.

Dr. Fry said that the County Council’s criticism of our letter reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific methods. For instance, research on exposure to relevant pollutants released by poultry houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore needs to be considered, no matter where the research was conducted. The reason is that exposure to particular gases, nutrients, and pathogens cause the same health effects in various states or countries. Dr. Fry also addressed the reasons for the lack of research on the Eastern Shore (hint: they often require buy-in from farmers and the poultry companies that oversee them), and pointed to research that has been conducted on the Maryland Eastern Shore—including United States Geological Service monitoring that shows high nitrogen levels in water, and studies on exposure to antibiotic resistant pathogens via flies and transport trucks—that merits consideration as well.

As Dr. Fry said, we provide contact information on every letter we send and we would be more than happy to meet with the Council to explain the studies we review and answer any questions. Before the Council publicly dismisses our letter at town hall meetings or any other forums, they should contact us so we can address their concerns. Luckily, both Dr. Fry and the Council President were present at this town hall, and we are hoping to continue the discussion with the Wicomico County Council.

The poultry debate on the Delmarva Peninsula has been heating up for months, but Thursday night’s town hall demonstrated a potential sea change in the public’s opinion of the expansion of poultry production. The communities living near industrial poultry operations want their government to step in and ensure that their health is protected.

For leaders to protect their constituents’ health, said Dr. Fry, they first need to be willing to consider, with open minds, evidence from experts—even if it makes them unpopular with their supporters with deeper pockets.

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