• Business Business

Investigation reveals Tyson Foods dumps millions of pounds of toxic waste into American waterways: 'This has to change'

"Trying to prevent this from happening again, trying to contain, address, mitigate these waste sources before they could enter our water resource … that's very important."

"Trying to prevent this from happening again, trying to contain, address, mitigate these waste sources before they could enter our water resource … that's very important."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new investigation revealed that Tyson Foods dumped hundreds of millions of pounds of harmful pollutants into United States waterways, leading environmental experts and scientists to criticize the meat and poultry giant for its practices. 

In April, the Guardian detailed the results of the investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS, which exclusively shared its findings with the outlet prior to publication. 

The report revealed that Tyson, the world's second-largest meat producer, discharged approximately 371 million of pollutants into U.S. waters across 17 states from 2018 to 2022. Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri were the recipients of more than half of that pollution. 

As the full scope of the problem is still coming to light, The Cool Down spoke with an expert to discuss some of the potential implications of the situation. 

Dr. West Bishop, an algae and water quality research manager at EutroPHIX, has worked with the division of the SePRO Corporation for more than a decade, and he focuses on developing and implementing solutions to restore our water resources from large-scale nutrient issues. 

When Tyson Foods dumped its waste, it released more than five million pounds of phosphorus, according to the UCS. This nutrient is actually essential for a healthy human body, as Dr. Bishop pointed out, but can spur on the growth of harmful algae blooms in waterways when present in excess amounts. According to EutroPHIX, which has helped restore more than 500 bodies of water, one pound of phosphorus can "support" up to 500 pounds of algae growth. 

"Dilution can have an impact on the concentrations that ultimately are realized of these contaminants, so there are some factors to consider at play. … But phosphorus in particular is certainly of concern," Dr. Bishop explained to TCD regarding the potential seriousness of the dump, noting that blooms can create dead zones in which creatures are unable to survive. 

Phosphorus is also "highly correlative" to what Dr. Bishop called more "nuisance algal types," like cyanobacteria, often referred to as blue-green algae. 

This potentially harmful type of bacteria is generally able to thrive in warmer water, but there are other factors, too, including average temperature, UV light levels, and even invasive species — which already throw things out of balance and also don't like to eat the often-harmful bacteria.

"This cyanobacteria, they taste bad … they smell like dirt, if you will, or mud, a lot of them. … Some of these organisms can understand they're toxic," Dr. Bishop explained. 

These toxins, which form the "nasty" green blooms, don't just stay contained to our waterways. They can enter our food chains, too.

"Whole new classes of toxins are still being uncovered that cyanobacteria can produce. And also the exposure routes, we continue to find new ways humans are being exposed to these toxins," Dr. Bishop told TCD, explaining that our drinking water can contain the contaminants, while crops, fish, and livestock can accumulate the toxins and potentially pass them on to humans.

Meanwhile, wind or wave movement can contribute to the toxins entering our air. According to Dr. Bishop, there have been documented cases of aerosolized toxins traveling for miles.  

"That's highly concerning that people that don't — not necessarily eating or swimming or eating the fish out of the lake could still be exposed to these [toxins] just by breathing in," he told TCD. "... And there has been clusters of neurodegenerative diseases linked to these aerosolization routes of exposure coming through this chronic inhalation of these toxins." 

However, while not downplaying the large volume of waste dumped by Tyson over time, Dr. Bishop expressed optimism, highlighting how solutions exist.

"Trying to prevent this from happening again, trying to contain, address, mitigate these waste sources before they could enter our water resource … that's very important," he said. "But if or when it still occurs, there's things we can still do about it."

For example, in a case unrelated to Tyson, EutroPHIX used an environmentally friendly modified clay that doesn't harm wildlife to help bring balance to Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas, a popular recreation spot where multiple dogs died after direct exposure to cyanobacteria. 

"I want to be fair. Nutrients are very important. We need them to grow food. We need them to grow animals," Dr. Bishop told TCD, explaining later that nutrients can also be discharged into our waters naturally, like by a flock of geese. "... But I think we really need more efficient ways of using them. And better stewards of the land and the water resources."

Speaking to the Guardian, UCS study co-author Omanjana Goswami also pointed to the importance of holding corporations accountable. This includes understanding when a company is engaging in harmful practices, which can lead to meaningful policy changes and prevent corporations from unfairly deflecting responsibility onto consumers.

"As one of the largest processors in the game, with a near-monopoly in some states, Tyson is in a unique position to treat even hefty fines and penalties for polluting as simply the cost of doing business. This has to change," Goswami said in the Guardian report, highlighting how only "a fraction" of the 5,000 meat and poultry processing facilities in the U.S. are required to report water pollutants. 

The outlet noted the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to introduce a new rule regarding pollution standards next year following a 2017 lawsuit by environmental groups. However, the agency is expected to select the weakest proposed option, as the Guardian noted, allowing large volumes of phosphorus and other pollutants, like nitrogen and sulfates, to continue pouring into our waters. Supporting eco-friendly policymakers can aid efforts to adopt stricter regulations.

In the meantime, Dr. Bishop highlighted the importance of education and the crucial presence of practical mitigation solutions, including those by EutroPHIX.

"We've really exacerbated this problem," Dr. Bishop told TCD, speaking to systemic issues of nutrient pollution within multiple industries. "... When this happens, I think it's our responsibility to come together, to unite people. … We need to come together as a species to say, 'Hey, guys, we need to work together to clean this up.'"

Join our free newsletter for cool news and actionable info that makes it easy to help yourself while helping the planet.

Cool Divider