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ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS AND TOXIC CHEMICALS WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, AND PLAY

Agriculture

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Farming is an important job, but it can be dangerous. Hazards on farms include toxic gases from fermenting crops and animal manure, chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers, high levels of dust, and infected animals that can spread diseases.
In addition to the agriculture and farming topics covered here, see dedicated pages for:

See also: Ammonia Endocrine Disruptors Methane Nitrogen Oxides Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Pesticides Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) Propane Solvents

What is Animal Waste?

Farm animal waste comes from livestock, poultry, and dairy production. It can be manure from farm animals or the byproducts of meat processing. It can also be the waste byproduct from inland fish farm aquaculture. Animal waste can be used in farming as fertilizer for crops.

Why is Animal Waste a concern?

Animal waste can contain organic matter, disease-causing organisms, and odors. It can also contain bacteria and nitrates, which can contaminate drinking water and cause illness. Farmers frequently use animal waste as fertilizer and apply it to the soil. If too much animal waste is applied, or if it is applied incorrectly, it can pollute lakes and rivers, contaminate groundwater, and harm human health.

Pits of animal manure are commonplace on a farm and are useful for cleanup and storage of waste. However, if not properly maintained and ventilated, animal waste pits can create potentially deadly gases. As manure decays and ferments, these gases can cause toxic reactions in people or animals, oxygen depletion, suffocation, and even death. The gases can also cause explosions. 

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Gases created by manure decay and fermentation are:

Farmers who work near animal manure pits are at risk for negative health effects from exposure to animal waste.

Additional Resources

What are Barns and Silos?

Barns and silos are agricultural buildings. Silos typically store grains. Barns house animals and store grains and equipment.

Why are Barns and Silos a concern?

Barns and silos may contain molds, dust, chemicals and dangerous gases. When damp hay is stored in warm barns, harmful molds can grow. These molds can cause respiratory problems, such as allergies, asthma, and an allergic lung inflammation called “farmer’s lung.” Poorly ventilated barns can create high levels of organic dust, which causes cough, fever, chills, and muscle pain. 

Dangerous gases in silos can form with the natural fermentation of manure, hay, or other crops stored there. Barns also serve as a catchall for fuels and chemicals used in machine maintenance, pesticides, or cleaners.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Farmers who work in barns and silos are at risk of harmful health effects from:

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Molds

    Curated links to current consumer health information on the health effects of molds. These English and Spanish web resources include background information, related issues, specifics, images, statistics and research, journal articles, relevant organizations and agencies, and patient handouts.

  • Farm Health and Safety

    Curated links to current consumer health information on farm health and safety, including background information, clinical trials, journal articles, and relevant agencies and organizations.

Additional Resources

  • Farm Respiratory Hazards (Penn State Extension)

    Information on farm occupational diseases caused by breathing airborne mold spores, nitrogen dioxide, allergens,  chemicals and other substances.

  • Silo Gases - The Hidden Danger (Pennsylvania State University)

    Information on dangers associated with silo gases, including their formation, and practices for entering and maintaining a silo safely.

  • Silo Storage Safety (California State Compensation Insurance Fund)

    Information for silo workers regarding operations for safe silo storage.

  • Upright Silo Safety (University of Maine Extension Service)

    Silo safety guidelines that address mold, silo gases, and associated respiratory problems.

What are Crop Fields?

Crop fields are large areas of farming land used to grow agricultural crops, such as corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, and cotton.

Why are Crop Fields a concern?

Crop production may result in harmful health effects from dust in tilled fields and chemicals used in farming to prevent weeds and keep pests away. 

Plant nutrients essential for crop production may come from fertilizers, animal waste, or sewage sludge. These materials may wash off the fields, causing water quality problems. Excess nutrients in lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water can cause harmful algae blooms. Chemicals in farm runoff can contaminate drinking water.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Farmers who apply pesticides, use fertilizers, or work in crop fields may be at risk of harmful health effects. Communities near crop fields and farming lands may be affected if agricultural runoff reaches their water supply and contaminates their drinking water. Some communities may also be affected by spray drift from airplanes spraying fertilizers or pesticides.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Farm Health and Safety

    Curated links to current consumer health information on farm health and safety, including background information, clinical trials, journal articles, and relevant agencies and organizations.

  • Pesticides

    Curated links to current consumer health information on the health effects of pesticides. These English and Spanish web resources include background information, prevention and risk factors, treatments and therapies, related issues, specifics, clinical trials, journal articles, relevant agencies, targeted resources for children, and patient handouts.

Additional Resources

  • Food Safety on the Farm Series (University of Florida IFAS Extension)

    A publication series on agricultural food safety practices that addresses field sanitation, manure and municipal biosolids, packing operation sanitation, sanitary facilities, transportation, traceback, water, and worker health and hygiene.

  • Agriculture: Crops (Environmental Protection Agency)

    Information on environmental concerns that may result from agricultural crop production, and efforts to reduce the harmful effects of farming practices.

  • Agriculture Nutrient Management and Fertilizer (Environmental Protection Agency)

    Information on different types of fertilizers, including commercial fertilizer and those made from biosolids, manure, waste, and recycled ammonia emissions; and the effects of these fertilizers on the environment.

Science Classroom (Grades 6-8)

Enhance your education on toxic chemicals in our environment using lesson plans, games and activities, videos, informational websites, and more.

Environmental Hazards on the Farm
PBS LearningMedia
An interactive activity adapted from the National Library of Medicine that enables students to explore potential agricultural environmental hazards.

What are Farm Ponds?

Farm ponds are small ponds created by farmers to collect water, attract wildlife, and provide recreation such as fishing, swimming, and ice skating. 

Why are Farm Ponds a Concern?

Farm ponds may be contaminated with fertilizer and pesticide runoff; hazardous waste, including animal waste; and other pollutants. Pond water may have a bad odor, algae, or contaminants that can lead to disease. Farm ponds may contain jagged rocks, animal bones, broken glass, and other trash. They also may pose a drowning risk.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Farm ponds may contain:

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Water Safety (Recreational)

    Curated links to current consumer health information on recreational water safety, including related health effects and conditions, health check tools, statistics and research, journal articles, subject matter experts, targeted resources for children and teenagers, and patient handouts.

  • Water Pollution

    Curated links to current consumer health information on the health effects of water pollution. These English and Spanish web resources include background information, prevention and risk factors, related issues, specifics, video tutorials, statistics and research, clinical trials, journal articles, relevant agencies, and targeted resources for children and teenagers.

Additional Resources

  • Farm Pond Safety (Pennsylvania State University)

    Information on drowning hazards associated with farm ponds, lagoons, water wells, and septic tanks, as well as safety issues of winter ponds.

What are Feeding Operations?

Animal feeding operations are places where farm animals are kept and raised in confined areas. These operations confine hogs, cattle and other dairy animals, or poultry in a small area where food is brought to them. No crops or vegetation are grown in the area where the animals are kept.

Concentrated animal feeding operations, sometimes called “factory farms,” keep large numbers of animals can contaminate water that passes through or near the operation.

Why are Feeding Operations a concern?

Feeding operations can negatively impact the environment. The large amounts of animal waste at feeding operations can pollute bodies of water with bacteria, viruses, nutrients, and solids. Animal waste and wastewater can contaminate groundwater through seepage, spills, or breaks in waste storage structures. 

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Farmers at and communities near animal feeding operations may be at risk of harmful health effects from:

Additional Resources

  • CAFOs and Public Health: Pathogens and Manure (Purdue University)

    Factsheet about risks to human and animal health due to exposure to pathogens from manure at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

  • Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) (Environmental Protection Agency)Information on agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations, also known as Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs), including environmental considerations and links to additional resources.

What are Irrigation Canals and Ditches?

Canals are the main waterways that bring water from a source to crop fields where water is needed for farming. Ditches are smaller than canals. Both may be lined with concrete, brick, stone, or a flexible membrane to prevent seepage and erosion.

Why are Irrigation Canals and Ditches a concern?

Irrigation canals on farms can be hazardous, especially for children. They are not safe places to swim, tube, or play. The swift current of irrigation canal water can knock people down, sweep them away, and pull them under the water. People can drown in this fast-moving water. 

Irrigation water can be extremely cold and deep. The water may be polluted with trash or debris. It may breed mosquitoes and other waterborne pests. Irrigation water is not safe to drink. There may be pollutants, pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals in the water. 

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Irrigation canal and ditch water may contain:

  • Herbicides
  • Mosquitos and other waterborne pests
  • Pesticides

Farm workers and their families who use irrigation canals for bathing and canal water for cooking and drinking are at risk. People who swim or play in canals are at risk.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Water Pollution

    Curated links to current consumer health information on the health effects of water pollution. These English and Spanish web resources include background information, prevention and risk factors, related issues, specifics, video tutorials, statistics and research, clinical trials, journal articles, relevant agencies, and targeted resources for children and teenagers.

Additional Resources

  • Irrigation Safety (California State Compensation Insurance Fund)

    Safety guidelines for irrigation systems.

  • Face Fatal Facts: Drowning Dangers on Agricultural Lands (Washington State Department of Labor and Industries)

    Factsheet on drowning hazards that occur on farms, including irrigation canals, well tailings pits, rivers, and canal siphons; and prevention tips.

Reduce your risk

  • Do you live or work on a farm? 
  • Do you live near a farm?
  • Wear a respirator while applying pesticides, working in barns or silos, or logging trees.
  • Ask farm owners to place “No Swimming!” signs next to irrigation canals and ditches. Do not swim there.
  • Have your farm pond water tested for chemical contaminants regularly. Avoid fishing in contaminated ponds.
  • Do not use farm pond or irrigation canal water for cooking, drinking, or bathing.

Children should not swim in irrigation canals or ditches.

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