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UNC study links gastrointestinal illnesses to hog farms

A hog farm in Lyons, Georgia.
Jeff Vanuga, USDA NRCS
submitted image, file
A hog farm in Lyons, Georgia.

People who live near commercial hog operations are more likely to suffer gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses than people who don't.

That's according to a study released earlier this year from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"This study [provides] additional evidence of the ways in which hog [farms] impact health," said Arbor Quinn, lead researcher of the project and alumna of UNC-Chapel Hill. "Gastrointestinal illness [is now] another health condition and equity issue associated with hog [farms]."

The study examined emergency department visits for GI illnesses based on zip codes. Results showed that living near hog farms can increase the risk of GI disease to a significant degree.

North Carolina is the second largest hog producer in the U.S. The majority of hog operations are concentrated in Sampson, Duplin and Bladen counties. These counties have a high population of people of color and low income communities.

Waste at hog operations are stored in 'lagoons.' Hog waste contains pathogens responsible for GI illness in humans, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and nausea.

The study found a larger increase in emergency department rates for GI illness after periods of heavy rain, presumably because hog waste lagoons can overflow.

"Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and heavy rain events," Quinn said. "These events may likely exacerbate existing environmental racism and health inequities linked to hog [farms] in eastern North Carolina."

The health impacts of hog farms are well documented. One previous study by Duke Health published in 2018 shows "death rates of all studied diseases -- including infant mortality, anemia, kidney disease, septicemia and tuberculosis -- were higher in North Carolina communities located near the large hog" farms.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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