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There’s a Mystery Foam on Some Hog Poop, and It Causes Explosions


There are disadvantages to factory farming. The crowded conditions lead to health risks for the animals. As a result, they’re given antibiotics which can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Oh, and also sometimes there’s foam that makes pools of hog poop explode. Farmers don’t know the cause of the foam, but they think they may have a solution, but it’s not a very good one.

The mystery foam started appearing in 2009 in some of the pits beneath hog farms that capture the animals’ waste, and no one really knows why. The foam is dangerous because as the waste breaks down it emits gases, which get trapped under the foam which has been seen to grow to be up to four feet thick. This build up of gases like methane can lead to explosions. It’s also really disgusting.

By September of 2011 there were at least six such explosions that killed more than 1,500 animals and one factory worker. An explosion in 2009 lifted a barn a “couple of feet off the ground” according to University of Minnesota researcher David Schmidt as seen in this video. It’s a little over a half hour long, and has incredibly disgusting photos of the foam itself. It’s safe for work, but gross enough that I didn’t want to embed it.

This isn’t a new problem, but it still persists and is worth pointing out. Earlier this year there was a fire while workers were welding in an empty hog building. It’s believed that a spark from the welding penetrated the foam and ignited the gas underneath.

The cause of the foam may be that farmers are feeding the animals the leftover distillers grain from the production of corn ethanol. That practice started around the time the foam began appearing, so there’s some correlation there. Poop from animals fed that grain has a higher fatty acid and fiber content, which might be creating conditions ideal for foam.

So far the only solution to the problem seems to be treating the affected tanks with monensin — an antibiotic. At least it’s not an antibiotic that’s used in medicine for humans, but it’s still not ideal to be blindly throwing antibiotics at things. Although monensin works, it’s not even clear why. It’s believed that it affects the microbial content of the waste enough to break up the foam.

This story is funny because it’s about explosive poop-foam, but it’s also pretty horrifying because that foam is a real problem. The only solution for which appears to be using more antibiotics without even understanding why.

(via Mother Jones, image via Lollie Dot Com)

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