Can’t Open the Filter Housings on Your Undersink Water Filter or Reverse Osmosis Unit?

1. The first thing of all is relieve the pressure on the housings.  With a filter, turn off the inlet water and open the faucet.  Leave it locked open while you work.  If you have a reverse osmosis unit, also turn off the valve on the storage tank. When no water is coming from the faucet, you should be able to open the housing.

2. To open, turn the housing counterclockwise.  Think of it this way: If you put the filter wrench on the extreme right housing and point the handle away from the housing to the left, you would use your right hand and pull back toward your body to open the housing.

3. Get into a comfortable position. If the unit is installed in an awkward, hard-to-reach location, you may have to pull it out to a place where you can address it comfortably. In the worst case, you may have to uninstall it so you can lay it on its back to get more leverage.  (Remember that the housings are full of water, so it’s going to run on the floor when it opens if it’s lying sideways.)

4.If all else fails, you can get more leverage by lengthening the wrench handle with a pipe or a vacuum cleaner wand.  Or you can even buy a special wrench designed for very tough jobs.  See WR012 on this page.

5. Extreme methods: Someone suggests using a hair dryer to warm the filter cap causing it to expand and thus loosen more easily.  Another suggestion, and I’ve seen this work with larger housings, is to apply the wrench to the housing and tap on the wrench handle with a small hammer or rubber mallet. The shock from the mallet tapping can break the housing loose and let you open it.

6. Finally, this may sound strange, but it is important.  When you apply steady pressure to the wrench to loosen the housing, believe that it will open.  In fact, think about what it will feel like when it breaks loose and opens.

How To Sanitize a Standard Undersink Reverse Osmosis Unit  (according to AI)

The very direct instructions created by an AI search are printed in bold type below. They  work great for our standard Black and White reverse osmosis units. They require some elaboration and modification  if you have an RO unit with disposable cartridge housings (like our Q Series units), one or more  disposable inline filters (like our “Economy” RO unit), or an encapsulated membrane (like any of our units with the 50/50 GRO membrane upgrade).
The AI instructions are in bold. See my comments in standard type below the AI instructions:

  1. Turn off the cold water supply connected to the RO system.
  2. Drain out the old tank of water through the dispensing faucet.
  3. Remove all pre-filters (stages 1, 2, and 3) from their housings. Also, remove the membrane from its housing.
  4. Scrub the inside of the housings with dish water and rinse thoroughly.
  5. Add bleach into the housing of filter stage 1.
  6. Install all empty housings and turn on the water supply.
  7. Open the RO faucet until water comes out.

My comments’ numbers refer  to the topic number in the AI instructions.

  1. On the Black and White unit, turn off the blue handled inline valve that feeds the Black housing.
  2. If it doesn’t drain completely, now would be a goodd time to add some air to drive all of the water out. This isn’t absolutely necessary to sanitize the unit, but you’ll do a much better job if the tank is healthy.  See Pure Water Gazette » Reverse Osmosis Tanks Cannot Live Without Air
  3. Remove the cartridges from the 2 or 3 vertical housings and the membrane from the horizontal housing.
  4. This step is optional. Unnecessary if the unit is running on reasonably clean water.
  5. About 3 tablespoons of household bleach is more than enough.
  6. Turn the valve half way on and let the water fill the unit fairly slowly.
  7. After you can smell bleach coming from the faucet, turn the water off and let the unit sit for a few minutes with bleach in it.  (The longer you wait, the more thorough the sanitation job will be.)

When sanitation is complete, turn off the inlet valve, open the faucet and let all the water drain from the storage tank. When the tank is empty, you can reinstall the filters and membrane (or replace them with new ones).  When everything is back in place, open the inlet, open the tank valve and close the faucet.  Let the RO unit fill the tank, open the faucet and let the tank drain, then close the faucet and the unit is back in service. When there is enough water in the storage tank, you can go back to using the RO unit as usual.

If  you want to sanitize the storage tank only, here are some easy instructions.

Sanitize your reverse osmosis tank.



Aer-Max Aeration Units:

Dealer Installation and Setup Video.  This is a complete installation guide furnished by a vendor of the product. Caveat: There are more ways than one to install the unit. This isn’t our favorite way.


Fleck Control Valves:

Instructional Videos from Pentair Water University: Fleck 5600 & 2510 Valves  — Links to the manufacturer’s support videos for Fleck 5600 and 2510 Controls


Dealer’s video on Seal and Spacer change for Fleck 2510 AIO.   Excellent step-by-step instructions from start to end of seal and spacer repair for Fleck 2510 AIO.  It works for all 2510 controls. Includes how to do it with or without the special tool set.

Rising Groundwater Could Release Toxic Chemicals From More Than 100,000 Contaminated Sites Across U.S.

By Peter Chawaga

Researchers have uncovered a new climate-induced threat that could imperil thousands of water systems across the country, introducing harsh contaminants left in soil by industrial facilities into the influent that passes through drinking water treatment facilities.

“A little-known climate threat lurks under our feet: rising groundwater that could release toxic chemicals from more than 132,000 contaminated sites in coastal areas of the U.S.,” Bloomberg reported. “When groundwater rises toward the surface, whether from sea level rise or increasingly intense climate-driven storms, those contaminants can leach into it and spread to other waterways, potentially poisoning people and wildlife.”

Drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities are no strangers to climate change-induced obstacles. Drier weather has introduced drought conditions throughout the nation, growing wildfires have devastated water infrastructure, and toxic algae is growing in source water at alarming rates, just to name a few.

Now, highlighting a lesser-known water threat, researchers have mapped the areas most likely to see their groundwater inundated with industrial pollutants as sea levels continue to rise. Making matters worse, the researchers believe some of the volatile organic compounds in the soil can vaporize and enter homes through buried wastewater infrastructure.

In the Bay Area, for instance, pollution introduced by rising groundwater can put thousands of areas at risk.

“A new report finds that over the next century, rising groundwater levels in the San Francisco Bay Area could impact twice as much land area as coastal flooding alone, putting more than 5,200 state- and federally-managed contaminated sites at risk,” according to Berkeley News. “Many of these sites are near communities already burdened with high levels of pollution.”

But even as more attention turns to this emerging source of contamination, this climate-driven water issue will have to compete for resources already dedicated to so many others. Even as we only begin to understand the drinking water and wastewater issues this contamination could pose, it’s clear that solving them won’t be an easy task.

“Climate-related groundwater rise can scramble the calculus on cleaning up toxic sites,” per Bloomberg. “Rehabilitating these locations can drag on for years, if not decades, and the high cost of removing soil has resulted in it being left in place at many sites, covered by an impermeable clay or concrete cap meant to contain the contamination.”

Source:  Water Online.

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Water News October 2023

Posted October 30th, 2023


Water News



Latest news! Retro Vintage Paper boy shouting with megaphone selling newspaper vendor, Extra! Special edition!


The “how much water should you drink” question has been visited so many times that we’ll spare you the details, but Healthline has a good article that addresses the issue well.  Spoiler: It doesn’t say drink eight glasses a day.  


Exceptional Drought in Kansas and other Mid-US States


Pervasive drought conditions have now reached the middle of the U.S., as cities in Southeast Kansas and beyond are facing never-before-seen water scarcity problems. Persistent drought is now affecting Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska. The situation in Kansas is now classified as “exceptional drought” and is threatening not only agriculture but drinking water supplies as well. Water Online. 

Arizona’s governor has canceled a deal that sold vast amounts of Arizona’s scarce water to Saudi Arabian cattle ranchers.  Full story at MSN.COM.

Do Water Fleas Hold the Answer to Water Pollution and Improved Human Health?

According to Water Online, “Tiny water fleas could play a pivotal role in removing persistent chemical pollutants from wastewater – making it safe to use in factories, farms and homes, a new study reveals.

“Scientists and engineers have discovered a method to harness Daphnia to provide a scalable low-cost, low-carbon way of removing pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and industrial chemicals from wastewater. This approach avoids the toxic byproducts typically associated with current technologies.”  Full article.

Giant Lake Cleanup Project Announced by EPA

In mid-October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced funding for the largest cleanup project to ever be implemented under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Legacy Act, thanks to historic resources from President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda. Under a new project agreement between EPA and five non-federal sponsors, an estimated investment of $450 million will go toward the cleanup of nearly two million cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern. Full story.

EPA Declares War On TCE


On October 23,  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to ban all uses of trichloroethylene (TCE), an extremely toxic chemical known to cause serious health risks including cancer, neurotoxicity, and reproductive toxicity. TCE is used in cleaning and furniture care products, degreasers, brake cleaners, and tire repair sealants, and a variety of safer alternatives are readily available for many uses. This action, taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), would protect people from these health risks by banning the manufacture, processing, and distribution of TCE for all uses.


The toxicity and dangers of TCE have been known for many years and the EPA’s action is long overdue. EPA found that TCE causes liver cancer, kidney cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It also causes damage to the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, immune system, reproductive organs, and is dangerous for fetal development. These risks are present even at very small concentrations of TCE.The best protection for homes and businesses against TCE are carbon filtration and reverse osmosis.


Encroaching water from the Mississippi River has necessitated more thorough disinfecting, which leaves behind dangerous chemicals


The water for a community along Louisiana’s Gulf coast has seen a significant increase in the levels of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts, according to recent state water tests reviewed by the Guardian. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), long-term exposure to such substances poses an increased risk of cancer.


The findings have emerged as many residents along Louisiana’s southern coast have faced saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico.


Since early summer, the combination of drought and rising sea levels has helped drag salty water from the ocean up the Mississippi River. The high levels of saltwater have made much of the region’s water undrinkable. But public health experts have also voiced worries that the saltwater intrusion could, over time, corrode the region’s ageing water infrastructure, leach heavy metals into the drinking water and create other knock-on problems.


The findings have emerged as many residents along Louisiana’s southern coast have faced saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico. Full article from The Guardian.




Faucet Adapters for Countertop Filters


As sink faucets get more diverse, it is getting harder to install water filters that get their water from the sink faucet. Among our standard products, our Model 77 countertop and our countertop reverse osmosis units are most often connected to the sink faucet for their water source.  Ideally (but increasingly rarely) the faucet’s aerator is removed and the filter’s diverter valve screws right on to the threads on the faucet.

If the diverter doesn’t match the faucet (all diverters are the same, but faucets can vary a lot), an adapter is used to make the connection.



The diverter valve from the filter screws directly to the sink faucet. If it doesn’t fit, there are many adapters available to make the connection. 

We provide the two most standard diverter adapters with our new units, but if these don’t work, the best plan is to buy an inexpensive pack of the most commonly used adapters.  We don’t sell adapters other than the two most common, but a customer suggested a really good Amazon source.  Their basic adapter pack should work with almost any faucet. See link below.

Amazon source for a good selection of inexpensive diverter valves. 


Saltwater Intrusion Creates A Drinking Water Emergency For Millions In Louisiana

By Peter Chawaga


Gazette Introductory Note: As the article below explains, because of severe drought conditions and rising sea levels, saltwater is invading the drinking water of parts of Louisiana. Rising sea level attributed to climate change contributes to this as it does to the danger toxic chemicals from storage pits created by chemical cleanup projects reentering the water supply.The article does not mention that the pollution of the drinking water sources has also created a demand for  increased chlorination of drinking water in these areas,  which has in turn led to dangerously high levels of the chlorination by-products called THMs. In short, the climate-related saltwater intrusion and drought conditions are working together to create a really serious threat to drinking water supplies.  As with most water issues the best defense for individuals is carbon filtration and reverse osmosis.


Dwindling levels in one of the nation’s most important waterways has now led to a drinking water crisis for the millions of consumers who rely on it, and the federal government is stepping in to alleviate the danger.“President Joe Biden announced … that federal disaster assistance is available for Louisiana, which is working to slow a mass inflow of salt water creeping up the Mississippi River and threatening drinking water supplies in the southern part of the state,” the Associated Press reported. “Biden’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts … Additionally, the declaration will allow for more equipment, resources and federal money to address the saltwater intrusion.”


Historically, the Mississippi’s water flow is enough to keep salt water coming in from the Gulf of Mexico at bay, but ongoing water scarcity over the last two years has changed that. Since this summer, Louisiana residents who live closest to the gulf have been relying on bottled water. And now, the saltwater could reach New Orleans as soon as mid-October.


In addition to Biden’s most recent actions, the looming drinking water crisis has spurred local and federal agencies into action.


“To help mitigate the intrusion, (Louisiana) and the Army Corps of Engineers are working to add 25 feet of height to a 1,500-foot-wide underwater levee in the Mississippi River, which was constructed in July to slow the saltwater’s progression,” CNN reported. “The corps also plan to barge millions of gallons of water daily to local water treatment facilities.”


As drought causes more drinking water issues for more water systems across the country, it’s likely that drastic federal assistance like this will become increasingly common. As is now the case for Louisiana, such systemic water issues clearly call for engineering and treatment facility interventions.


“Federal assistance is ‘necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster,’ the governor wrote,” per AP. “While officials say they are praying for rain to help increase the velocity of the drought-stricken river they are also taking matters into their own hands — raising the height of an underwater levee used to block or slow the salt water and bringing in 15 million gallons of fresh water to treatment facilities in impacted areas.”


To read more about how water systems across the country are dealing with the challenges posed by drought, visit Water Online’s Water Scarcity Solutions Center.


Water Online


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Water News, September 2023

Posted September 30th, 2023

Water News for September 2023




Can the Great Salt Lake Be Saved?

Environmental and community groups have sued Utah officials over failures to save its iconic Great Salt Lake from irreversible collapse. The largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere has been steadily shrinking, as more and more water has been diverted away from the lake to irrigate farmland, feed industry and water lawns.

A megadrought across the US southwest, accelerated by global heating, has hastened the lake’s demise. Unless immediate action is taken, the lake could decline beyond recognition within five years, a report published early this year warned, exposing a dusty lake bed laced with arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxic substances. The resulting toxic dust bowl would be “one of the worst environmental disasters in modern US history,” the ecologist Ben Abbott of Brigham Young University said earlier this year.

Despite such warnings, officials have failed to act, local groups said in their lawsuit. “We are trying to avert disaster. We are trying to force the hand of state government to take serious action,” said Brian Moench of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of the groups suing state agencies.

Can the lake be saved? Despite growing political momentum on the issue, scientists say the proposed measures are not nearly enough to save the lake, which has lost about 40 billion gallons of water annually since  2020.  The Guardian

Five American cities are one intense climate issue away from being in serious trouble.

CNN in an in depth report listed five American cities –Buffalo, New York; Prichard, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; Central Coast, California; and San Juan, Puerto Rico as all facing existential vulnerabilities that could leave drinking water or wastewater systems in total disrepair should climate-induced calamity strike. And these potential worst-case scenarios range from drinking water scarcity to stormwater inundation.   Water Online.

In September,  Antarctic sea ice shrank to the lowest level ever recorded.  Full story from The Guardian.


Salt Intrusion in Louisiana

The very low water level of the Mississippi is allowing Gulf water to seep into drinking water sources in parts of Louisiana. As a result, grocery stores are struggling to keep up with bottled water sales.Residents have reported skin irritations and damaged appliances, including water heaters and washing machines, from salt exposure.  “Unimpeded salt water continues to creep upriver and threatens municipal drinking water. That makes it unsafe to drink — especially for people with kidney disease, high blood pressure, people on a low-sodium diet, infants and pregnant women.” U.S. News.   New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has signed an emergency declaration over an intrusion of saltwater into the Mississippi River that officials say could impact the water supply in the region.

The Carbon Footprint of Pet Fish



A lot has been written about the environmental impact of owning pets like dogs and cats, but not a lot has been said about the carbon footprint of pet fish ownership.  As you might guess, there’s a world of difference between owning a goldfish and maintaining a full-fledged aquarium for tropical fish. What’s the carbon footprint of owning pet fish?  looks at the environmental consequences like water and energy use of maintaining an aquarium in some detail. Environmental concerns related to fish ownership are mainly water used, which can be considerable for large aquariums requiring reverse osmosis water and frequent water changes, and energy used for pumping and heating water.  The Conversation.


A recent poll reported by Greenwire found that 79% of voters want more water infrastructure funding.


Study Finds Disparities in Public Water Quality Associated with Race and Income

Recent studies funded by the Superfund Research Program (SRP) reached the not-surprising conclusion that socioeconomic factors, such as race and income, may be associated with disparities in exposure to drinking water contaminants. For their studies, researchers evaluated contaminants in private wells and community water systems in various regions across the country. 

These disparities stem from a long history of unequal environmental protections and investments in water infrastructure. As a result, water is more likely to become contaminated in poor communities and these communities face greater technical and financial challenges in maintaining water quality that meets safety standards.Environmental Factor




The Advantages of Parallel Installation of Backwashing Water Filters







The illustration shows two carbon backwashing filters installed in parallel so that each filter gets half of the treatment stream.

We have long been advocates of parallel installation of two or more cartridge-style filters to achieve higher service flow, to lengthen cartridge life, and to improve overall effectiveness of the filters.  Parallel installation also works well with larger backwashing filters.

The challenge in sizing backwashing filters for residential applications is that the filter must be large enough to support sufficient service flow to the home but small enough to fit the space available and to be regenerated on the amount of water available.  With filters for challenging contaminants like iron and manganese, the filter often needs more gallons per minute to regenerate itself than it is capable of treating.  For example, a well that puts out only six gallons per minute usually cannot support an iron filter that will treat six gallons per minute because backwashing the filter requires more than six gallons per minute.  Challenges like this can often be overcome by installing two small filters side by side rather than a single larger filter.

Parallel installation means splitting the water line in half so that each of two filters handles only half of the service flow to the home, then bringing the two lines of treated water together. In the system illustrated above, the carbon filters each get half of the water stream at half the flow rate. If the treatment stream is flowing at five gallons per minute, each filter has to process only 2.5 gallons per minute. The filters then backwash separately so that each gets the full water stream that the well is capable of.

Here are some common situations where two side-by-side filters work better than a single larger filter.

Space limitations. — In a basement or crawl space with limited height, where a 52″ tall filter holding two cubic feet of media won’t quite fit, you can use two 48″ filters each holding one cubic foot. 

Water limitations. If the water source won’t put out enough water to backwash the iron filter you need, you can use two smaller filters and set them up to backwash at different times. Each filter has to process only half of the service flow but gets the well’s full output for backwash. (It is common for a backwashing filter to need a higher flow rate for backwash than it is capable of processing for service flow.)

Ease of upkeep. A single large backwashing filter can be too heavy for installation or for a media change without power equipment or special tools, but a single individual can often manage a smaller tank that has half the media and water of the larger tank.

Simplicity of equipment. Using two smaller filters rather than one very large one usually allows use of a more user-friendly small residential control valve rather than a large commercial assembly that is harder to service, harder to find parts for, and more complicated to program. Likewise, two smaller residential control valves are in many cases less expensive than a single commercial-sized control.

Redundancy. If a filter malfunctions and needs repair, you can bypass the faulty unit and still have water service to the residence through the remaining unit. You may have to limit your water consumption, but it’s sure better than having no water at all.

Here are some tank size equivalents, based on media needed.

A 1o” x 54″ filter can be replaced by two  8″ X 44″ filters to make a 1.5 cubic foot filter.

A 12″ x 52″ filter can be replaced by two 9″ X 48″ filters to make a 2.0 cubic foot filter.

A 13″ x 54″ filter can be replaced by two 10″ X 44″ filters to make a 2.5 cubic foot filter.

Larger units.

Two 12″ X 52″ filters can replace a 14″ X 65″ or a 16″ X 65″.

Two 13″ X 54″ units and replace a 18″ X 65″ filter.

Three 13″ X 65″ filters can substitute for a 21″ X 62″ filter.

There are, of course, many other possibilities.









The myths we tell ourselves about American farming

“Agricultural exceptionalism,” explained.

by Kenny Torrella


“These factory farms operate like sewerless cities.”

If you were to guess America’s biggest source of water pollution, chemical factories or oil refineries might come to mind. But it’s actually farms — especially those raising cows, pigs, and chickens.

The billions of animals farmed each year in the US for food generate nearly 2.5 billion pounds of waste every day — around twice as much as people do — yet none of it is treated like human waste. It’s either stored in giant pits, piled high as enormous mounds on farms, or spread onto crop fields as fertilizer. And a lot of it washes away into rivers and streams, as does synthetic fertilizer from the farms growing corn and soy to feed all those animals.

“These factory farms operate like sewerless cities,” said Tarah Heinzen, legal director of environmental nonprofit Food and Water Watch. Animal waste is “running off into waterways, it’s leaching into people’s drinking water, it’s harming wildlife, and threatening public health.”

Yet in practice, the Environmental Protection Agency appears to be largely fine with all that.  


When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it explicitly directed the EPA to regulate water pollution from “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or factory farms, among other businesses. But according to Food and Water Watch, fewer than one-third of the largest factory farms are actually regulated — and lightly, at that.

Earlier this month, the EPA told Food and Water Watch it’s going to stay that way. The EPA rejected a 2017 joint petition from the group and other environmental organizations, calling on the agency to better regulate factory farms under the Clean Water Act.

The kind of regulatory evasion that allows for so much water pollution is just the latest example of what food industry reformers call “agricultural exceptionalism,” which lets the sector operate under a different set of rules than other parts of the economy, leading to widespread abuse in the food system. It’s fueled by romanticized myths about farming that mask the original sins of American agriculture — most notably slavery and mass land expropriation from American Indians — and the modern-day issues of mass pollution, animal cruelty, and labor exploitation. And it’s come to affect virtually every part of how food gets from the farm to your table.

Rather than regulate more factory farms for pollution, the EPA said in its recent decision that it will set up a committee next year to further study the issue for 12 to 18 months. The agency denied an interview request for this story, but a spokesperson said in an email that “a comprehensive evaluation is essential before determining whether any regulatory revisions are necessary or appropriate.”

The National Pork Producers Council celebrated the news, saying in a statement, “We are grateful for the Biden administration’s continuous commitment and support of agriculture.”

Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa, said the EPA’s plans for a lengthy evaluation amount to little more than a stall tactic. “We’ve been studying some of this stuff for decades,” she said. “We already know what needs to be done.”

We’ve also been here before, she added, pointing to another landmark piece of environmental legislation: the Clean Air Act. In 2005, after years of industry noncompliance with the law, the EPA under Republican President George W. Bush brokered a deal in secret with the pork industry, promising to hold off on regulating factory farms so long as they funded research into the issue. Nearly two decades later, no regulatory action has been taken. In the last five years, Congress and the EPA have exempted farms from two other critical air quality laws, despite more deaths linked to air pollution from factory farms than pollution from coal power plants.t’s the tactic of the [agricultural] industry to slow walk everything — renegotiate, restudy, reevaluate the obvious,” Secchi said.

Agricultural exceptionalism, explained

To understand why agriculture so often gets a free pass on commonsense regulation, we have to go back to the early 1900s. Back then, most workers across industries toiled for six days a week and often well over eight hours a day, including millions of children. President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned on shorter hours and higher pay, and in 1938, he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law as part of the New Deal. It set rules for minimum wage, overtime pay, maximum workweeks, restrictions on child labor, and more.

Time called it “the law that changed the American workplace,” and it did — except on farms.

“To obtain sufficient support for these reforms, President Roosevelt and his allies had to compromise with Southern congressmen,” Alexis Guild of the nonprofit Farmworker Justice wrote in a 2019 paper with her former colleague Iris Figueroa. “These compromises included exclusions of farmworkers and domestic workers from the law’s protections, preserving the plantation system in the South — a system that rested on the subjugation of racial minorities.”

The carveouts for agriculture in labor law set the tone for how farming would be regulated — or unregulated — for decades to come.  

On top of exemptions from critical environmental and labor legislation, farms are also exempt from the Animal Welfare Act, leaving billions of animals raised for meat, eggs, and dairy — almost all of whom are raised in terrible conditions on factory farms — with virtually no federal protections. The federal law that’s meant to reduce animal suffering at slaughterhouses exempts chickens and turkeys, which make up 98 percent of land animals raised for food.

The United States Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with the paradoxical task of both regulating and promoting agriculture, hasn’t been shy about its deference to industry. When asked in an interview on the Climavores podcast why farms aren’t regulated to reduce pollution, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said there are simply too many farms to regulate, and that conservation efforts should be voluntary — and farms should be compensated for them (they are, handsomely, with taxpayer dollars, while municipalities spend billions annually to clean up farm pollution).

It’s not just the USDA and the EPA that often look the other way when problems arise in our food system. Netflix’s new hit documentary Poisoned details how the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration’s lax food safety regulations lead to over a million consumers sickened annually, largely from tainted chicken and leafy greens contaminated by livestock manure.

According to Civil Eats, a nonprofit publication covering the US food system, nearly all animal agriculture operations are exempt from federal protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the agency doesn’t respond to 85 percent of worker fatalities on animal farms.

US immigration law ensures the agricultural sector has a steady supply of largely foreign-born, low-paid, and exploited — sometimes even enslaved — workers. Meanwhile, the federal government gives ranchers 155 million acres of public land for cattle grazing at practically no cost.

Agricultural exceptionalism trickles down to the state level, too. Most states exempt livestock from anti-cruelty laws, and many states have passed “ag-gag laws,” which criminalize activists and journalists for simply recording what goes on at farms. Most state environmental agencies — including in progressive states like Californiadon’t do much to regulate farm pollution.


All 50 states have so-called “right to farm” laws, which prevent citizens from suing farms for nuisances like pollution and odor that degrade their quality of life. “The smell, you can’t hang your clothes out, you can’t do nothing in the yard,” said one North Carolina woman who lives a few hundred feet from a pig waste storage pit.

One corn and soybean farmer in Nebraska who lives near giant chicken farms described the stench of manure and pits of decomposing birds as “the death smell” that “tries to get inside anything it can.”

How taxpayers enrich agribusiness

While the entire food sector benefits from agricultural exceptionalism, animal agriculture is especially privileged. Meat and dairy producers get far more subsidies than farmers growing more sustainable foods, like beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

A recent analysis from Stanford University researchers found that livestock farmers receive 800 times more public funding than non-animal farmers. “It’s clear that powerful vested interests have exerted political influence to maintain the animal-farming system status quo,” Eric Lambin, one of the study authors, said in a press release.

This dates back much further than today’s industrialized, corporate-dominated food system. As Secchi notes, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, which handed over swathes of the Western US — after taking it from American Indians by land seizures and genocide — to white settlers to farm the land, especially cattle ranchers. Ever since, federal dollars have freely flowed to the agricultural industry, in the form of crop insurance, direct payments, infrastructure and conservation programs, and R&D, further entrenching an industry that has now worked its way into power at every level of government, making reforms near-impossible.

Farmers are heavily overrepresented in government, with 25 current members of the US House of Representatives, or their family members, having collected millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. That’s almost 6 percent of the chamber, even though just about 1 percent of Americans live on farms. The dynamic is the same at the state level.

Local and state tax codes give special treatment to farmers, taxing farmland at a lower rate than other kinds of land.

Like so many other sectors of the economy, there’s a revolving door between government and business. Vilsack served as President Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary for eight years before heading over to the US Dairy Export Council, where he served as CEO for a few years; in 2021, he returned to government, taking up his old post as agriculture secretary under President Joe Biden. In between, agricultural businessman Sonny Perdue served as President Trump’s agriculture secretary. State agriculture secretaries, from Texas to Nebraska to North Carolina, are often farm owners as well. Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen is a hog tycoon who’s been accused of air and water pollution since the 1990s, and has used the bully pulpit to attack plant-based meat alternatives.

Big Ag often argues its exceptional status is justified because farming is indeed exceptional, given the essential nature of its product: food. But Secchi argues this is the wrong way of thinking about it. Since the early days of American agriculture, farming has been a business like any other, focused on high output, which has led to excess supply and profitable exports around the world.

And we don’t apply exceptionalist logic to any other industry. Energy production, for example, is highly polluting but essential to human flourishing, just like food, so we push to make our laws and economy limit the industry’s externalities and scale renewable forms of energy.

Exemptions are granted to the agricultural industry not because we’ve ever really been at risk of famine, but because of the powerful myths we tell ourselves about farming.

Breaking out of agricultural exceptionalism

There are fewer political messages as potent, or as bipartisan, as supporting farmers.

“In politics, marketing, even literature and art, the presence of a farm or farmer signals authenticity, sincerity, patriotism, and a ‘real American’-ness that no other occupational group or industry can claim,” wrote Sarah Mock, agriculture writer and author of Farm (and Other F Words), in the Counter. “The problem with this myth, of course, is that it’s a myth.”

It harkens back to the Jeffersonian ideal of the US as “a nation of small farmer-landowners, each economically and politically independent,” making agriculture “the heart and soul of American democracy,” according to a paper by William & Mary Law School professor Linda A. Malone.

However, Jefferson’s vision never came to pass. Small farms have been squeezed out by big farms, due in part to American farm policy advocated for by the same elected officials who evoke the Jeffersonian ideal.

What’s left is a highly consolidated agricultural sector, with many farmers precariously employed as contractors for corporations, and a radically uneven distribution of farm wealth: 98 percent of US farmland is white-owned, and the median commercial farm household had $3 million in wealth in 2021, mostly in land and equipment, compared to the US median of $121,700.One-fifth of America’s 2 million farms don’t even sell food, serving more as real estate investments.


Agricultural exceptionalism cuts across both major political parties, according to food policy expert Nathan Rosenberg and journalist Bryce Wilson Stucki. “While conservatives have consistently pushed more aggressive, pro-agribusiness policies,” they write, “liberals have often responded with pro-agribusiness policies of their own, even when that meant undermining their own natural allies: small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers, rural minority populations, and the small, independent businesses they support.”

Journalists, and even most environmental advocacy organizations, often reinforce agricultural exceptionalism, too.

As a result, according to Secchi, criticizing the modern agricultural system can be politically marginalizing. “In America today, rural and farm are not the same thing, but they tend to be conflated with each other,” she said. “And so they say, ‘Oh, you’re against this, you’re against rural people.’ But it’s not true. Rural people are the first ones to suffer from the pollution, from the poor labor laws, from all the problems that this kind of agricultural system creates.”

The myth of the small, humble family farm, paired with the political clout of millionaire farmers and the lobbying might of the trade associations that represent them, explains why it’s been so hard to reform the food system.

Secchi argues that agricultural exceptionalism persists in part because we haven’t yet reckoned with the ugly roots of American agriculture: slave labor and land expropriation.

If you really want to go after the really core problems, you have to think about the fact that all this land is in private hands that maybe shouldn’t be in private hands,” Secchi said. “And all this unfettered pollution, [farmers] not paying the social costs, particularly of livestock production, requires you to think, ‘What is the alternative model?’ And the alternative model is a model in which we eat a lot less meat.” (Raising livestock requires far more land and water than growing plant-based foods — and produces far more pollution.)

To get there, she said, farmland owners need to be taxed at a higher ate, and we need to do away with the American notion that people can do whatever they want on their private property: “What this change requires is limiting the ability of people who own land to create problems for the rest of us, in terms of the pollution they generate, the water they use … the way they treat their workers, the way they treat their neighbors — they can’t just pass on all these costs to the rest of us.”

A hog waste pond is seen adjacent to hog houses at a farm owned by Smithfield Foods in Farmville, North Carolina. Gerry Broome/AP

I was reminded of the tight grip Big Ag holds on the government during a recent trip to North Carolina, which has a notorious hog pollution problem. On a Sunday morning, I visited Raleigh’s sprawling weekend flea market on the state’s fairgrounds, which are owned and operated by the state’s agricultural department. There’s a giant banner hanging on one of the fairground buildings bearing a simple slogan that makes it clear where the state stands on farm regulation: “TRUST FARMERS.”

Farmers, of course, shouldn’t be distrusted, though farming ought to be held to the same regulatory standards as any other profit-seeking endeavor — perhaps even higher standards, considering the far-reaching effects of its operations. That might give way to a more humane, sustainable food system, in which there are serious costs to pay for polluting waterways, poisoning the air, underpaying workers, and abusing animals — as there should be.

Reprinted from VOX.


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