Slaughterhouses discharge wastewater contaminated with blood, oil and grease, and fats, which contains nitrogen and phosphorus pollution – pathogens – among other contaminants. This can cause algae blooms that suffocate aquatic life and turn rivers and streams into bacteria-infected public health hazards.
Slaughterhouses pollute our rivers
Slaughterhouses—industrial facilities that process and package poultry, beef, pork and other meat—discharge millions of pounds of pollution into America’s waterways every year.
Wastewater from slaughterhouses contains nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to toxic algal outbreaks and dead zones.
Wastewater also can contain fecal bacteria and pathogens, veterinary drugs, cleaning products and blood. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as of 2015, 367 slaughterhouses—including many that process thousands of animals a day—dumped wastewater directly into rivers and streams.
Many other slaughterhouses send waste to public wastewater treatment plants, potentially increasing pollution from those facilities. In addition, in 2002, the EPA counted more than 1,000 facilities that stored waste in on-site lagoons or spread it on land. Heavy rains can cause lagoons to overflow or wash waste off fields where it has been sprayed, polluting nearby waterways.
Slaughterhouses are major water polluters
Meat and poultry processing facilities are a leading source of water pollution. In 2018, slaughterhouses released more than 55 million pounds of toxic substances directly into the nation’s rivers and streams.
Meat and poultry processing facilities are the largest industrial point source of nitrogen pollution discharged to waterways, according to 2015 EPA data. They also generate 14 percent of the phosphorus released into waterways from industrial sources.
Slaughterhouse pollution can contain dangerous viruses and bacteria
Wastewater from meat and poultry processing facilities contains bacteria, viruses and parasites that can make water unsafe for drinking, recreation or irrigation. Pathogens commonly found in slaughterhouse wastewater have been linked to gastrointestinal diseases, bloody diarrhea, liver damage, and in some cases death.
Slaughterhouse wastewater can contain antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, fueling the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause hard-to-treat infections. Municipal drinking water systems downstream from slaughterhouses use disinfectants to kill pathogens, potentially creating unsafe chemical byproducts.
Slaughterhouse wastewater harms wildlife and ecosystems
Nitrates degrade drinking water. Nitrates, a form of nitrogen, account for nearly all the pollution reported in slaughterhouse wastewater discharged to rivers.
In Sussex County, Delaware, field spraying of slaughterhouse wastewater has polluted local drinking water wells with nitrates. Nitrates have been linked to “blue baby syndrome” and colorectal and other cancers.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from slaughterhouses threatens human health by contributing to toxic algal outbreaks. Toxic algae makes water unsafe to drink. Algal outbreaks can produce high levels of cyanotoxins that water treatment systems may not be able to completely filter out of drinking water.
Algal outbreaks can also make water unsafe for swimming. In 2019, officials ordered multiple lengthy beach closures in Mississippi due to algal outbreaks. They warned beachgoers not to come into contact with the water because the algae could cause nausea and vomiting and harm the liver and nervous system.
Slaughterhouse wastewater harms wildlife and ecosystems nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from slaughterhouses contributes to dead zones, harming ecosystems and wildlife.
Nutrient pollution feeds algal outbreaks. When large numbers of algae die, they remove oxygen from the water and create “dead zones” for fish and other aquatic life. Many slaughterhouses discharge into the vast Mississippi River watershed, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2019, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico covered 6,592 square miles, forcing fish to either flee or suffocate. Reduced habitat can cause fish populations to decline. Slaughterhouse wastewater damages wildlife and ecosystems in additional ways.
Compounds found in slaughterhouse wastewater, such as chromium and chemicals from detergents used in cleaning, have been found to cause changes in aquatic ecosystems that endanger fish and vegetation.
In 2015, after a wastewater lagoon spilled millions of gallons at a JBS USA slaughterhouse in Beardstown, Illinois, untreated wastewater was pumped into a nearby bay connected to the Illinois River, leading to the death of more than 64,000 fish. Pollution from slaughterhouses can contribute to algal outbreaks.
Slaughterhouses increase pollution threat from CAFOs
New meat and poultry processing facilities create demand for huge volumes of livestock and poultry and can spur construction of more concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
In Humboldt, Tennessee, Tyson Foods is building a new facility to process 1.25 million chickens per week. To supply the plant with chickens, Tyson estimates it will contract with 80 farmers, at least one of whom will build new chicken houses. Most of the chickens will be raised within 35 miles of the plant.
A new Costco chicken processing facility in Nebraska has resulted in construction of hundreds of new barns at chicken farms. Some farms will raise as many as 750,000 chickens at a time.
CAFOs are themselves a major source of water pollution. Livestock and poultry operations produce huge amounts of manure. A large feeding operation with 60,000 hogs, for example, can produce nearly 100,000 tons of manure in a year.
CAFOs often are concentrated in a limited geographic area, and produce more nitrogen and phosphorus than can be absorbed by crops on the surrounding farmland.
As a result, nutrient pollution from manure is a major source of pollution in the nation’s waterways. For example, in North Carolina, immense hog operations generate waste that has polluted the state’s rivers and streams. Heavy rain has washed the waste off fields where it has been sprayed. Lagoons also have overflowed during hurricanes, spreading bacteria into water that people come into contact with. *
Our work on Keystone Protein Plant
On July 29, 2019 Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association filed a citizen suit against Keystone Protein Company for its violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) that are damaging the health of Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay ecosystems. Learn more about our work fighting pollution from Keystone Protein Plant.