Pork is the world’s most widely consumed meat. In Nebraska, with an estimated 153 swine concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), it is Nebraska’s fifth leading commodity and part of the state’s $5.9 billion in agricultural exports.
But there’s a health cost that comes with raising hogs. Despite modernization of CAFOs, workers are at risk to develop lung disease.
It’s estimated more than one-third of those who work in animal, swine and dairy facilities, develop lung disease related to dust exposure.
Deb Romberger, M.D., and Jill Poole, M.D., of the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Internal Medicine, have received five-year grants totaling nearly $3.5 million.
The grants are funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.
The studies are some of the first to evaluate how the immune system recognizes and responds to organic dust. Using a unique mouse model they developed to study lung disease, the researchers hope to shed more light on how dust causes health problems.
Dr. Romberger said organic dust exposure in the agricultural industry, particularly from large animal farming, can result in significant airway disease including bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma, and obstructive lung disease.
“Initial exposure induces an intense airway inflammatory response that wanes over time, but repeated exposure increases the risk of lung function decline, persistent inflammation and progressive respiratory impairment,” she said.
The ultimate goal is to develop new treatments to reduce airway inflammation before it causes disease in workers.
In addition, the teams will evaluate whether there are additional substances in the dust that should be better monitored in order to improve environmental conditions in the facilities.
“We don’t fully understand the cause of disease, but it has to do with exposure to bacteria from feces and/or dust that becomes airborne and inhalable,” Dr. Poole said. “A lot of research has been done in this area, but my research shows we might be focused on the wrong problems. We want to determine the important agents within the dust, then we can try to reduce exposure to them.”