What's the big deal about pig odor?

Conservatives are having a little fun seizing on an appropriation to study the odor as an example of wasteful spending, but it's no laughing matter -- it's deadly serious.

Published March 6, 2009 11:20PM (EST)

Conservative politicians looking for pork in the latest omnibus spending bill got one pretty literal example handed right to them: a $1.79 million appropriation for "swine odor and manure management research" in Iowa. Not ones to look a gift horse -- or any other kind of livestock -- in the mouth, they've been running with it.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Twittered about the money. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla, called it "$1.7 million to take the stink out of manure." And Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., took to the floor of the Senate to say, "Now, I'm a veterinarian by profession. I understand that pigs smell and pig farms smell worse than almost anything else, but when did it become the responsibility of the federal government to control pig odor?

Other people, like the Christian Science Monitor's Jimmy Orr, have joked about it too. "The good news is if you have a problem with pig odor, the $1.7 million investment is sure to take care of the issue and then it’ll be money well spent," Orr wrote. "Imagine a world without pig odor. That’s change we can believe in."

I'll be the first to admit this is pretty funny stuff. Imagine, spending almost $2 million to study the fact that pigs smell?

Of course, if any of these people actually bothered to go back and do a little research about what they were discussing, they'd know it's not really funny after all. Pig odor is more than just a smell; it's dangerous stuff that cause serious health problems, both physical and mental, in people. It can even contribute to asthma in children.

One study of people living near large hog farms in North Carolina, for instance, concluded "persons exposed to odors from intensive hog operations experienced 'more tension, more depression, more anger, more fatigue and more confusion' than a group of unexposed persons."

A 1998 workshop about the subject, held at Duke University and featuring 50 experts, came to the conclusion that "Our current state of knowledge clearly suggests that it is possible for odorous emissions from animal operations, wastewater treatment, and recycling of biosolids to have an impact on physical health. The most frequently reported symptoms attributed to odors include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headache, nausea, hoarseness, cough, nasal congestion, palpitations, shortness of breath, stress, drowsiness, and alterations of mood."

And here are the conclusions from one study, from Iowa no less, that compared people living near pig farms (CAFOs) with a control group not exposed to livestock odor:

[N]eighbors of the swine operation reported significantly higher rates of four clusters of symptoms previously documented to represent toxic or inflammatory effects of the respiratory tract among confinement workers. One cluster reported by swine CAFO neighbors includes symptoms such as coughing, sputum

production, breath shortness, chest tightness, and wheezing. A second cluster includes symptoms of nausea, weakness, and feelings of dizziness. A third cluster consists of headaches and plugged ears, while a fourth cluster encompassed symptoms of a runny nose, scratchy throat, and burning eyes. Most notable is the fact that for the first time the configuration of respiratory symptoms among neighbors was documented to be consistent with the scientifically well-established pattern of respiratory health problems among swine confinement workers discussed previously.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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John Ensign John Mccain R-ariz.