OUTLOOK, Wash. –- Standing on Jim Dyjack’s porch, you can see cows – a lot of cows – that make up the dairy across the street. And more than the sight, you can smell them. Dust blows through the air, covering cars and windows.
“That’s not dust. That’s poop. Plain poop. And urine. And we’re breathing it,” Dyjack says.
The Dyjacks say it’s difficult to go outside. Their eyes water and their throats burn. Tomatoes from their garden must be washed two or three times. They got rid of all their outdoor furniture — they never ventured out to use it. And visitors won’t come around because it stinks.
The reasons for that foul odor are cow allergen and ammonia. That’s according to a recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Cow allergen is carried in cow dander, urine and fecal matter. It clings to the dust in the air.
Jay Gordon is the Washington State Dairy Federation executive director. He says dairies work to reduce pollutants.
“Overall, the dairies work making sure they’ve got good, clean operations. I mean, we all live right on our own dairy farms, and we wanna make sure that they’re not obnoxious. And they do have some smells, but we do our best to try to reduce those and minimize those,” Gordon says.
But it’s not just outside that’s a cause for concern, says researcher D’ Ann Williams. Pollutants come inside, too. In the Dyjacks’ home pollutants concentrated on their living room fan.
Seventy percent of Washington’s large dairy farms are in the Yakima Valley. Yakima County has the most dairy cows in the state – 93,6060, according to the Department of Agriculture.
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Johns Hopkins researcher D’Ann Williams says the number of animals in the Yakima Valley has changed drastically over the last 20 years, as dairies migrated away from western Washington to this arid area.
“We’ve gone from traditional farms, where you have multiple exposures, multiple crops on one farm, one parcel of land, to very, very high, intensively confined operations where you have hundreds of thousands of animals, sometimes, in one location. It’s sort of changed the face of agriculture and the face of what living in a rural environment is,” Williams says.
The study sampled 40 homes throughout the Yakima Valley for five days. Williams found higher levels of cow allergen and ammonia inside and outside of people’s homes who lived within five miles of a dairy.
Washington State Dairy Federation’s Jay Gordon questions the study’s accuracy.
“That there is ammonia coming off a dairy or a livestock farm, okay, that’s not a big surprise. The part that was actually pleasing was what we expected: that it’s not a level of any concern,” Gordon says.
Measured separately, cow allergen and ammonia concentrations were within safe limits, according to the study. But, researcher D’Ann Williams says to think they are not harmful is inaccurate. She says these pollutants can be more hazardous when combined. Furthermore, Williams says, even low levels of allergens can harm people who are sensitive to them, like children, senior citizens and people with respiratory problems like asthma.
“Common health-related symptoms associated with living next to one of these facilities include upper respiratory symptoms, like sinusitis, rhinitis, cough. And they’re all consistent to agents that we measured in our study,” Williams says.
Though Williams says more study needs to be done to understand the full health effects.
“I get headaches from this,” says activist Jan Whitefoot.
Activist Jan Whitefoot twists and turns down country roads in the Lower Yakima Valley. Sitting next to her is fellow activist Helen Reddout. Growing up, Reddout’s family owned a small dairy. She says she’s not anti-dairy – she just wants to see sustainable farming practices in place. Reddout says that’s not how factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFOs, run.
“I’ve lived here for 57 years. We’ve always had dairies. But we’ve had dairies where they pasture their animals, as most people think of dairies as being. As these CAFOs try to advertise themselves as being that kind of a dairy. They’re not,” Reddout
She points to a liquid manure-filled lagoon. There’s a pipe running from a nearby dairy into this lagoon. A small “waterfall” runs with brown liquid. Williams says as manure gets stored, trucked and pumped to different areas, more pollutants get dispersed throughout the valley.
Driving from dairy to dairy, thousands of cows stand under sheds and in open grassless pens – manure around their hooves and caked on their hind legs.
On a local, organic dairy, cows move in and out of the shed area. Some stick their heads through metal fences while sniffing and eating hay. Out in a grass-covered pasture, cows look like they’re lazing about in the sun, unlike their factory farm counter-parts.
These large-scale dairies are often located in the poorest rural areas. Reddout points out a small, run down house with a dairy on either side.
“Go to court? How are these people going to do that? And so because of their poverty, because of their lack of financial abundance, they end up having their constitutional rights taken away from them because they cannot fight this,” Reddout says.
Activist Jan Whitefoot says that’s why she took up this role: for the kids and senior citizens who are most susceptible to pollutants.
“It’s a constant reminder that they’ve come in and taken something very precious away from us. We are being denied the basic rights of having clean air and clean water,” Whitefoot says.
Williams says pollutants can be minimized with air purifiers and air conditioners, as well as keeping your house dust-free. But the Dyjacks say that’s a difficult task. They say this house has been the dustiest house they’ve ever lived in.