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Suit Puts Poultry Farms in Spotlight: S.C. Woman Says Farm Near Her Home is Causing Health

May 7, 2006

By Sammy Fretwell, The State, Columbia, S.C.

May 7–KINGSTREE — For decades, Carmen Covington has lived with the smell of fermenting chicken manure from a farm next door.

The odor sometimes is so strong Covington stays in her house — even on pretty days. Her family has complained to the state health department for years.

But when she began coughing and a mysterious rash turned her hands lobster-red, Covington said it was more than she could take.

Last fall, Covington filed a lawsuit against the mega-chicken farm near her house, claiming airborne toxins from the chicken houses have made her sick. Her lawsuit is believed to be the first of its kind in South Carolina.

It’s also the latest skirmish between the state’s booming poultry industry and its neighbors.

More than 800 permitted chicken and turkey farms dot the landscape across the state, raising more than 215 million birds annually. The growth of the poultry business has turned broiler chickens into South Carolina’s top cash crop.

State lawmakers are expected to loosen regulation of factory-style chicken farms sometime in the next month.

To Covington, that would be a mistake.

“We need to get the word out that these farms are not the benign things they are made out to be,” said Covington, 65, who has lived next to the farm since the 1960s.

Covington said she wants stricter regulation for poultry farms, particularly rules to better separate them from homes.

Wayne McCutchen, the farmer Covington is suing, denies in court papers that his poultry farm made her sick

S.C. Farm Bureau spokesman Reggie Hall questioned whether air pollutants from poultry farms could threaten human health. Hall, whose group is seeking looser rules for poultry farms, said he has never heard of an air pollution suit like Covington’s in South Carolina.

“We have more than 30,000 family farmers in South Carolina,” Hall said, “and I don’t know of a single case where any of them has become unhealthy because of air quality around their farms.”

Long known for strong odors and water pollution threats, giant chicken farms also can be sources of potent air toxins. Researchers have traced airborne ammonia, tainted dust, and poisonous gases to chicken, turkey, hog and dairy farms. These contaminants can irritate people’s lungs or burn their eyes.

Scientists across the country are on the lookout for outbreaks of the deadly avian flu at poultry farms. So far, it hasn’t been detected anywhere. Covington does not mention avian flu in her lawsuit.

The effect of air pollution from poultry farms depends on the exposure a person receives, said Jerry Gibson, director of disease control for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

At poultry farms, air pollution often comes from fecal matter and animal dander blown out of huge chicken houses through vents. If the material lingered inside, it could sicken or kill the thousands of birds being grown for market.

Public health officials and scientists “need to learn an awful lot more about what the effect of large agricultural operations are on the people who work in them and the people who live near them,” Gibson said.

LIVING PROOF

Covington, who does not smoke, said she is living proof a poultry farm can endanger its neighbors.

Her October 2005 lawsuit said she is plagued by sinus disease, a hyper-expanded lung and heart enlargement from breathing air polluted by the farm. The 174,000-bird farm, which contains seven chicken houses, is less than a quarter-mile from her home on S.C. 261. She is seeking unspecified damages from the chicken farmer.

She wears a mask to protect her from the air pollution from the farm when she ventures outside to walk her dogs through the open fields and deep woods around her home.

On a recent trek through the cotton field she leases out, the scent of chicken manure wafted around her. The odor came from the vented chicken house on her neighbor’s property and settled over the freshly plowed field she owns.

“Sometimes, the smell is very faint,” she said. “But sometimes, it about knocks you out.”

Covington’s health problems flared up several years ago. That’s when an itchy, scaly rash broke out. Photographs of her hands show that her tan skin had turned bright red.

Allan Lieberman, a North Charleston physician who examined her, said in a 2004 letter to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control that chronic exposure to the chicken farm had caused chemical sensitivity and sensitivity to molds. It did not elaborate. The letter called Covington’s case a “sad situation.”

Covington’s ailments “were consistent with her history of chronic exposure to the products and byproducts of the chicken farm adjacent to her property,” Lieberman said in the letter. “The problem of pig and poultry farming is they are unacceptable in areas of residential exposure.”

Attempts to reach Lieberman were unsuccessful.

Covington’s lawyers, Tom Pendarvis and Gary Poliakoff, said they would not discuss other doctors’ statements about her condition.

“This lady has suffered significant health problems,” Poliakoff said.

CHICKEN FIGHT

The target of Covington’s lawsuit, a high-school classmate who farms chickens for an agribusiness, says he had nothing to do with Covington’s illness.

If Covington has gotten sick, it’s her fault or the fault of someone else, farmer McCutchen says in court papers. McCutchen has had the poultry farm since 1965.

McCutchen’s attorney, Preston Dawkins of Florence, declined comment.

Columbia lawyer Bob Guild, one of the state’s most active lawyers in chicken farm cases, said he routinely argues about the air pollution threats when fighting new animal farm permits in court. But Guild, a Sierra Club member and chicken farm critic, said he has not heard of a lawsuit over farm air pollution making someone sick in South Carolina.

Covington’s neighbors along S.C. 261 have mixed thoughts about the threat of the chicken farm to their air.

Franklin McCray, 41, lives just down from the chicken farm but said he rarely smells much of an odor.

Harriett Fulton can see — and smell — the McCutchen farm across the street from her house.

“At times, the smell can be unbearable,” said Fulton, 57, who has an energy-sapping blood condition. “I wonder sometimes if it hasn’t induced my conditions. The farm is too close if you can smell it.”

AIR WARS

A 2004 report by the University of Delaware said pollutants called endotoxins in poultry house dusts can cause fever similar to the flu.

People can have headaches, nausea, nasal irritation and chest tightness if exposed to the material in sufficient amounts, the study said. It also noted that ammonia from poultry houses can affect people’s lungs.

A recent report by researchers at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University said the general population is at risk from farm air pollution because the country has so many large factory farms.

“These exposures now have the potential to affect larger numbers of individuals, including members of the neighboring community not involved in agriculture or related industrial livestock production,” the report said.

But Al Heber, an agricultural engineering professor at Purdue University in Indiana, questions that assertion.

“I find it difficult to conclude that the smell from a livestock facility some distance away is the cause of a respiratory problem,” he said.

Michele Merkel, a former federal Environmental Protection Agency lawyer, said the issue of air pollution from factory farms intensified nationally after her agency began enforcing air pollution laws against farms about six years ago. Until that point, much of the attention had focused on water pollution, she said.

Because of questions about animal farms everywhere, the EPA is launching a national study to measure air pollution from hog, poultry and dairy farms.

“You are seeing more and more studies documenting the adverse health effects” of air pollution from big animal farms, Merkel said.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The State, Columbia, S.C.

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