It started with sirens, warning the approach of a severe storm. We weren’t surprised when winds bent and shook the last winter-weary leaves off the trees. We weren’t surprised when our dog continued to snooze on the sofa while marble-sized hail pelted the roof, but it was surprising how fast the portly canine maneuvered under the coffee table, with the first crack of thunder.

“Everyone has something that sets them off” my Grandma Ella used to say. Surprising new research on asthma finds that thunderstorms can be the trigger that “sets off” an asthma attack for some patients.

According to researchers at Nassau University Medical Center and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, thunderstorms are just one of the surprising triggers for asthma. Researchers say it may be the stress of thunderstorms or the high levels of pollen released into the air during a storm which triggers an attack in some asthma patients.

But, it doesn’t stop there; laughter, crying or extreme emotional states can also prompt an asthma attack by changing breathing patterns and restricting air flow. So can cigarette smoke, aspirin, food additives, acid reflux, or even alcohol. But, noticeably absent from the ‘trigger list’, was the proximity to a modern hog barn. That ‘set me off,’ considering the ‘stink’ made by the Washington, DC-based Environmental Integrity Project, (EIP) in their recent report on alleged air quality impacts of livestock farms.

EIP says a Purdue University study proves modern livestock farming has made some rural areas dirtier than America’s most polluted cities. EIP claims emissions from modern hog barns have negative health risks for all who work in them or come in contact with them, ranging from respiratory problems, eye irritations, neurological damage, you name it. Since livestock farming is such a cornerstone to Iowa’s economy, such a story could rumble across the state faster than an approaching thundercloud.

But, I’m no researcher, so, I asked Dr Hongwei Xin, Director of the Egg Industry Center and Professor of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering and Animal Science department at Iowa State University, to take a look at the EIP report. In layman’s terms, Dr Xin says the report has ‘enough holes to drive a truck through’. But in scientific terms, Xin says a “critical flaw with the report is that they are trying to mistakenly apply the study results to human health, by mixing the exhaust/barn concentration levels with the ambient air quality (health) standards. They should know that the general public does not live, thus breathe air, next to the exhaust fans or even within certain vicinity of the production facilities. Also, workers taking care of the animals routinely protect themselves by wearing dust and gas masks,” says Xin.

Having grown up on a livestock farm and been inside more than 30 others (so far), I know that, ‘yes’, waste from animals stink just like….you would expect. But, scientists who work intensely with air emission data from all types of livestock say smell alone doesn’t equal negative health effects from well-managed livestock farms. Teaching Iowans to cower in fear from the smell of livestock farms makes as much sense as teaching a dog to head for the underside of a coffee table at the first clap of thunder.

Written by Laurie Johns
Laurie Johns is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.