Nearly one third of the land in the continental United States is utilized for growing food and maintaining habitats for animals destined for slaughter, according to a report by Mighty Earth, an environmental justice organization. The consequences of this ever-growing industry have been dire for denizens of the US, as much of the pollution produced by agro-industrial farming has made its way into the drinking water. Fertilizer and manure contain nitrates and other contaminants. When fertilizers aren’t stored properly, chemicals are allowed to leak into nearby water sources, causing contamination.
The entrance of nitrates into US water sources has been linked to the so-called “Dead Zone,” an 8,776 square-mile section of the Gulf of Mexico containing very few living creatures due to low oxygen levels. The Dead Zone, currently the size of New Jersey, is the largest it has ever been since scientists started taking yearly measurements in the 1980s. This is partially due to the influx of nitrates coming down from the Mississippi River – the same nitrates that are currently contaminating the drinking water of nearly 200 million US residents, according to a recent report by Truth-Out
As noted by Truth-Out, nitrates exist naturally in the earth and water. The problem is that high concentrations can lead to a number of health issues, including birth defects, blue baby syndrome and even cancer. The government’s current standard for nitrate levels is 10 parts per million (ppm), a threshold few regions reach. However, nitrate levels of 5 ppm have been linked to cancer.
Using their new national Tap Water Database, the EWG has found that nearly 1,700 water districts throughout the US have nitrate levels exceeding 5 ppm. The database contains information derived from 28 million water records linked to nearly 50,000 public water utilities. Out of the 50,000 utilities, 40,000 (or 81 percent) contain a contaminant that has been linked to cancer.
A report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) observed that a small town in Kansas, known as Pretty Prairie, is subject to some not-so-pretty conditions. The town, surrounded by nearly 12,000 acres of farm land, has one of the highest concentrations of nitrates in its drinking water. At about 20 ppm, Pretty Prairie’s tap water is twice the federal limit.
Process of Contamination
The consequences of this contamination are disastrous for communities in this country. The EWG’s report explains the process: first, high nitrate levels induce the growth of a cyanobacteria, a type of algae that produces toxins. Often chlorine is used to rid the water of said toxins, but chlorine leaves behind a chemical known as trihalomethanes (TTHMs), which can lead to reproductive issues and cancer. To adequately treat the water, towns like Pretty Prairie must use an expensive procedure that would ultimately leave the local government bankrupt.
Small Rural Towns
In Ohio, for instance, there are three towns with high levels of TTHMs. One town, Wellington Village, exceeded the permissible amount of 80 parts per billion. After the local government alerted residents, state EPA officials maintained that there would be no short-term effects, but that long-term exposure could lead to health issues.
In response to the contamination, Wellington Village and Ravenna, another Northern Ohio town, have drafted plans to replace old storage tanks with new and improved aeration systems, specifically designed to mitigate contamination. But can every town afford such an overhaul? It isn’t likely.
In its lengthy report, Might Earth pinpointed the company responsible for a majority of the pollution emanating from agrobusinesses. Most of the farms in the United States grow food to feed farm animals. The largest company in that sector, supplying one fifth of the meat in this country, is Tyson. Between 50 and 75 percent of the meat market is controlled by four companies.