Iowa’s bird flu burden: Disposal of more than 25 million birds creates new challenges for health officials

Illustration by Jared Jewell
Illustration by Jared Jewell

Over 25 million birds at 52 northwest Iowa farms have been, or will soon be euthanized in an attempt to prevent the spread of the H5N2 virus, a highly pathogenic strain of Avian Influenza, aka “bird flu.” Most of the facilities affected by the virus are large, commercial egg-laying operations, but the virus has also spread to a number of turkey farms and one broiler farm, which raises chickens for meat. No human has ever been infected with H5N2.

Though Iowa has been hit hardest by the outbreak, the USDA reports that farms in more than a dozen states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin and most recently, Nebraska, have reported confirmed cases of H5N2 infection.

On May 1, two-and-a-half weeks after the first case of H5N2 was confirmed in Buena Vista County on April 14, the total number of birds to be killed in Iowa surpassed the 15 million mark, leading Gov. Terry Branstad to declare a state of emergency.

Officials from state and federal agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Iowa Department of Public Health, have yet to determine what is causing the rapid spread of the virus.

Dr. James A. Roth, Director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University, has tracked the spread of the virus for years. Alongside his colleagues at ISU, Roth wrote the Foreign Animal Disease Preparedness guide (FADP), which provides detailed guides on what to do when a flock becomes infected with avian influenza.

With the FADP guide in hand, officials had a containment plan in place before the current H5N2 bird outbreak, but according to Roth, no one could have predicted how rapidly it would spread. Roth says that early on most researchers believed the virus was spreading through migratory bird droppings, but given its “unprecedented” infection rate, he says they’ve begun looking into other routes, including the possibility that it’s traveling through the air.

“When you have one big infected flock,” Roth said, “the air coming out of that barn might have virus, quite a bit of virus, in it and it might blow to other barns. Other things they’re looking at are the feed, and yes, wild birds, also.”

Early findings from a pilot study released by the University of Minnesota on May 8 seem to reinforce the airborne hypothesis. Though researchers say the results of preliminary tests on air samples gathered from three Minnesota farms show that H5N2 can be aerosolized, it will take time to confirm that this is the primary means of transmission from farm to farm.

Illustration by Jared Jewell
Illustration by Jared Jewell

Roth said that as of May 7, he believed the outbreak was winding down, and that as temperatures in the area continued to rise, the virus was likely to die out. On May 8 his optimism was proven to be unfounded, however, as IDALS announced that it was investigating seven more probable cases of farms infected with H5N2. Within days those cases were confirmed, adding more than four million infected birds to the tally.

As the death toll continues to rise, officials at the DNR and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) struggle to find safe ways to dispose of the sheer volume of infected bird carcasses. The average egg-laying hen weighs about 3.6 pounds, and 25 million of them will soon be euthanized. That’s more than 45,000 tons of dead birds, not including the other, roughly four-and-a-half million dead turkeys. In total, 40 percent of Iowa’s egg-laying hens will die.

So far, the government has employed four primary methods to dispose of the birds: Composting, burial on site, incineration and disposal at local landfills. According to Roth, each method comes with its own set of risks related to increasing the likelihood that the virus will continue to spread, but a combination of the four will be necessary due to the quantity of carcasses. He is confident that the EPA and DNR will work hard to ensure that all birds are disposed of safely.

On-site burial is the simplest method of disposal, but it’s only possible in select cases due to the possibility that the decaying birds could infect the water table. EPA-approved landfills circumvent this issue, because they have liners buried beneath the waste they store. As they decay, biological material from the dead birds seeps onto the liner and can be collected and treated.

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Each containment method comes with its own set of risks

However, some EPA-approved landfills have been declining to accept the bird carcasses. The landfills are privately owned, and are often built in close proximity to large-scale chicken farms. By accepting the birds, they argue, they would be opening themselves up to lawsuits from farmers if the birds in their landfills infect the surrounding flocks. It’s a practical concern, given the fact that no one is entirely sure how H5N2 spreads. On May 6, Iowa DNR Director Chuck Gipp and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey sent a letter to landfill owners, asking them to accept birds to help combat the growing crisis.

According to Roth, most of the time, turkeys can be composted because of how they’re housed while alive. After the turkeys at an infected farm are euthanized, it’s possible to line them up in the center of the turkey house, cover them up with organic material and wait for nature to take its course. The organic materials interact, the temperature rises and over the course of several months the virus is killed off.

Incineration is a much faster solution to the disposal problem, but officials once again run into issues with the overwhelming volume of dead birds. Since Iowa didn’t have any large-scale incinerators on hand at the outset of the outbreak, the DNR issued three temporary permits to Massachusetts-based company, Clean Harbors, so that they could set up their incinerators and begin burning carcasses. The company is set to burn several million birds, according to the DNR, and they may be given an additional incinerator permit, if need be.

As the virus continues to spread, many Iowans are concerned about how this might impact the economy. If the outbreak were to end tomorrow, which doesn’t seem likely, Iowa, which just over a month ago was the nation’s leading egg-producer, will have lost more than 40 percent of its egg-laying chickens. That means egg prices could go up, but it also means corn producers will have less farms to sell feed to for some time, since the infected farms will take years to get back to the pre-H5N2 capacities. It also means a lot of Iowans will lose their jobs.

“These premises employ a lot of people, and the processing facilities employ a lot of people,” Roth said. “We’re still in the middle of it, but this is going to have a huge economic impact.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 177