Elegant country homes stand alongside the fields of tobacco, corn and soybean that surround Owensboro, Kentucky. But as gently as the breeze ruffles the lush carpet of bluegrass, it also wafts fumes of ammonia and fecal dust from nearby industrial chicken farms. Standing on her front porch, Leesa Webster can see eight poultry houses that stand in the fields across from the property where her ancestors have lived for 150 years. Each house is huge -- longer than a football field -- and contains as many as 25,000 chickens. And outside each house is a set of five large fans that blow air polluted with chicken waste toward Webster's home. Studies have shown that each day the average chicken house can emit up to ten pounds of ammonia, a chemical that can induces nausea or worse. The houses also release hydrogen sulfide -- another toxic chemical that can cause dizziness, nausea and even fluid in the lungs after high concentrations of exposure.
The stench is overpowering. Think of the bird section in a pet store -- a pungent combination of dirty feathers, urine and sawdust -- magnified a thousandfold. "I used to have a pool for my daughter to swim in," says Webster, a vivacious woman whose hearty smile fades momentarily. "But then the pool started developing a film because of the air pollution from the chicken houses next door."
The chicken houses have cropped up like weeds since Tyson Foods, the world's largest processor of pork, beef and poultry, brought its industrial farming system to Owensboro in the 1990s. Kentucky is now home to at least 2,000 chicken houses and raises an estimated 297 million birds each year -- seventy-one times the state's human population.