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Agricultural pollutants linked to decreased lung function

Agricultural pollutants linked to decreased lung function

People living in heavily agricultural areas may be putting their health at risk due to the resulting air pollution, according to new research released as part of the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign.

The new research was presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress in London from 3-7 September, which brings together the brightest minds in lung health to discuss possible breakthroughs.

The study looked at 2,500 adults living in a rural area in the Netherlands characterized by large-scale livestock farms and showed that those living within 1km of 15 or more farms had 5% lower lung function.

Over the course of a year, lung function testing also exposed a correlation between high levels of air pollution and reduced lung function. With concentrations of ammonia ranging from 10 to 75 µg/m3 over the course of the study, ammonia was found to have the biggest impact. The data shows that when the concentration the week before the test increased by 10 ug/m3, lung function readings were typically 4% lower. This ‘ammonia effect’ was seen in healthy adults as well as those with existing respiratory conditions.

While densely populated livestock farming areas are only an issue in some countries – with comparable areas to the Netherlands study found in Germany, Denmark and parts of the USA – air pollution caused by ammonia is a much larger-scale problem, with recent research linking air pollution episodes in the UK to agricultural ammonia emissions from continental Europe .

According to the researchers, the scale of the “farm effect” on lung function is similar to the effect of air pollution on urban residents, making it just as important a topic for policy makers.

With lower lung function leaving people at greater risk of respiratory health issues, the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign is encouraging anyone who is concerned they might be feeling the effects of air pollution to talk to their GP and get their lungs tested.

Dr Lidwien Smit, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University, and senior author of the study, said:

“In rural areas with industrialized agriculture, people are increasingly concerned about air pollution. Our study shows that living in these areas can compromise respiratory health, especially in patients with chronic lung conditions. What’s more, during air pollution episodes caused by ammonia, we found an effect on lung function in healthy adults as well”.

Commenting on the study, Professor Jørgen Vestbo, President of ERS and Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Manchester, said:

“Agriculture has long been acknowledged as a major source of pollution. What’s becoming clearer is the localised impact of this. We want people to be more aware of the environment around them – where they live and where they work – and the impact this can have on their health. At the same time, we need policy makers to take steps nationally and internationally to reduce pollution and stem its harmful effects”.