Chemical contamination, meat and dairy

What are the potential sources of chemical contamination from meat and dairy processing facilities?

Most impacts of the animal processing industry on water quality result from the discharge of wastewater to waterways. The processing of milk and meat related products in slaughterhouses, tanneries, and dairy plants requires the use of water for processing and general cleaning purposes. The strength and composition of contaminants in the wastewater depends on the nature of the processes involved.

Agro-industrial effluents may contain compounds that are directly toxic to aquatic life (e.g., tannins and chromium in tannery effluents, un-ionized ammonia) or alternatively put a high biological oxygen demand on a system. Large quantities of insoluble organic and inorganic particles (suspended solids (SS)) are often present in wastewater. Suspended solids are mainly material that is too small to be collected as solid waste.

Potential impacts of chemical contaminants on water quality and mahinga kai

  • Local loss of fish species - fish may be harmed by contaminated water. Discharges and runoff into rivers and streams can be lethal to aquatic life depending on the strength of the contaminant and size of the waterway.
  • Local loss of invertebrate species - contaminants can be particularly lethal to invertebrates, e.g. kōura. Invertebrates are also food for fish and persistent discharges that kill invertebrates could cause fish to travel farther in search of food, exposing them to greater risks and stress.
  • Decreased dissolved oxygen (DO) levels - waste compounds released into waterways initiate biochemical reactions that use up oxygen as the stream bacteria break down the organic matter (Biogeochemical Oxygen Demand, BOD). Excess nutrients can also lead to algal blooms, and oxygen is used up when the algae die and decompose. Fish ‘breathe’ oxygen through their gills, a decrease in available oxygen (anoxia) in the water column threatens their ability to respire, which may lead to death. Fish that tolerate low levels of dissolved oxygen (such as the introduced species gambusia) may replace native populations that are less tolerant.
  • Increased turbidity and decreased water clarity - water may become cloudy or discoloured with chemical contamination which reduces the ability of fish to see prey and detect predators.
  • Damage to species - repeated exposure to sub-lethal doses of some contaminants can cause physiological and behavioural changes in fish that have long term effects on the population, such as reduced reproductive success, abandonment of nests and broods, a decreased immunity to disease, tumours and lesions, impairment of the central nervous system, and increased failure to avoid predators.
  • Some contaminants, such as mercury, may bioaccumulate in animal tissues and be carried to human consumers of the fish.

Learn more about the potential environmental impacts of chemical contaminants in waterways