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

What is it?

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.

Why is it 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 streams, 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, 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.

Additional Resources

What are they?

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

Why are they a concern?

Barns and silos may contain molds, dust, and dangerous gases. When damp hay is stored in warm barns, 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 for harm from:

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

Additional Resources

What are they?

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

Why are they a concern?

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

Plant nutrients essential for crop production may come from fertilizers, manure, 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

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

Farmers who apply pesticides, use fertilizers, or work in crop fields are at risk. Communities near crop fields may be affected if agricultural runoff reaches their water supply. Some communities may also be affected by spray drift from aerial application.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

Additional Resources

What are they?

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 they 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

Additional Resources

What are they?

Animal feeding operations are places where 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 and discharge pollution into water that passes through or near the operation.

Why are they a concern?

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 are at risk for harm from:

Additional Resources

What are they?

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

Why are they a concern?

Irrigation canals can be extremely dangerous, 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 contain trash or debris. It may breed mosquitoes and other waterborne pests. It 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

Additional Resources

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 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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