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Poultry Plant Workers Suffer from Unknown Chemical That “Stings like Acid”

An unknown chemical at a massive poultry plant in rural North Carolina is making workers sick. Mountaire Farms workers, who are largely immigrants, have reported a suffocating odor, headaches, watery eyes, nausea, dizziness, and pain in their lungs. Some have fainted at work, and one man was hospitalized for a lung infection. Despite this, Mountaire Farms has reportedly not addressed their concerns, given them tools to protect themselves, or even explained what the chemical is.

Many of the workers do not have health insurance and say they are treating symptoms by drinking herbal teas and taking over-the-counter medications. One of the plant’s workers described the effects:

It stings your eyes and throat; it’s like a burning in your nasal cavity. Whatever it is, it gives us headaches and it makes us sneeze. It causes a lot of mucus and it makes it feel like your throat is cracking. It’s something in the water with the chickens because if the mist gets in your eyes, it stings like acid.

The workers speculate that the chemical could be ammonia, chlorine, or peracetic acid. Unfortunately, all three of these chemicals are used daily in chicken plant operations, which makes filing a complaint difficult. In fact, poultry plants commonly keep thousands of pounds of hazardous chemicals used to chill and process dead birds. Ilana Dubester, founder of the nonprofit Latinx advocacy organization El Vinculo Hispano, said:

We are talking about dozens, if not hundreds of workers being exposed to this unknown chemical and becoming ill. They are fainting at work and experiencing pain in their lungs. These are serious symptoms. One man at the plant had to go to the hospital after developing a lung infection. Anything that disturbs your lungs—especially in a poultry plant during a pandemic—should be treated very seriously, but these workers have been scoffed at for months.

According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, Mountaire Farms is the largest chicken-processing facility in the world. Each day, the plant slaughters around 540,000 chickens. In 2009, the company had an ammonia gas leak that injured three workers and killed another. After the incident, state regulators cited Mountaire Farms with 20 workplace violations. Incidents like this show how little the company values its workers. One employee said:

I give my best to Mountaire, but the headaches I’m having are unbearable and it’s clear [Mountaire] doesn’t care about us. They only care about production. We can be dying and they won’t give us sick time; they won’t help with our hospitalization. They don’t treat us like humans.

The meat industry has a long history of abusing its workers, many of whom are from marginalized groups and communities of color. To demand meaningful changes in our food system, we must understand how systemic racism has thrived in the meat industry and how animal agriculture still benefits from it.

By no longer supporting this abusive industry, we can help create a better world for animals and people alike. Download our free veg starter guide to learn how you can start adding delicious plant-based meals to your routine.