The Impact of Endotoxin on Respiratory Healthin Animal Farm Workers

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Animal farms includes dairy farms, cattle farms, swine farms, concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs), etc. Over the past two decades, there is a growing trend of shifting from small scale family owned farms to large scale animal farms in both North America and globally.1 With the expansion of livestock production, there are also increasing concerns about the environment impact of agricultural production. One of such concerns is the impact of exposure to endotoxin to agricultural workers’ occupational health, especially respiratory health.

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Endotoxin is lipopolysaccharides that are part of the outer membrane of Gram negative bacteria. Workers in animal farms are exposed while working since there are high levels of endotoxin in animal fecal waste. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 856,300 agricultural workers in US in 2016.2 And there is an even larger population of animal farm workers globally who are working in similar conditions. Therefore, endotoxin exposure in animal farms is a global occupational health issue. There are multiple stakeholders at play around this issue, including animal farm workers, farm owners and regulatory agencies.

Animal farm workers are the ones at risk of being exposed to endotoxin and potentially suffering from both long-term and short-term health effects. However, many of the workers may not seek out resources and advocate for their own rights and health in fear of losing their jobs and income. Additionally, 27% of farm and 29% of animal slaughterhouse workers are undocumented immigrants, while only 5% of the general US workforce is made up of undocumented immigrants.3 These workers face additional challenges, such as language barriers and fear of deportation, if they try to advocate for their occupational health. Animal farm owners are mainly concerned with making maximum profit, and are not likely willing to implement waste treatment and management technologies in order to keep the cost as low as possible unless they are legally required to. This is why regulatory agencies, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), need to step in to establish regulatory standards and guideline for endotoxin levels, and help protect the health of the large population of animal farm workers.

Sources and routes of exposure:

The source of containment is endotoxin is mainly present in the fecal waste from the animals. The primary route of exposure to exposure for workers is through the inhalation of airborne particles.4 Since this is an occupational exposure, the exposure depends to the type of tasks workers are performing and how long workers spend on different type of tasks. For workers who spend more time on shift performing tasks that involves more direct interaction with animal and closer interaction with fecal waste (for example, workers cleaning up animal facilities or transporting animal waste), they are more exposed compared to workers who spend less time and have more indirect interaction with animals and their fecal wastes.

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