Hog Dust and Human Health

Posted September 22, 2023, 11:24AM
Assistant Professor Carressa Gerald

Carresse Gerald, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of environmental, earth and geospatial sciences. Originally, she intended to become a veterinarian and studied animal science at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T). While earning her master’s degree in animal health sciences at N.C. A&T, however, she researched animal husbandry facilities where hogs are raised and how the dust that accumulates there would affect the breathing of both pigs and workers. Gerald earned her doctorate in energy and environmental systems and later conducted post-doctoral research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in the study of environmental pollutants on the respiratory system.

What is hog dust composed of?

Feed particles, skin, feces, urine bacteria, insects and arachnids. Anything that has been kind of floating in the air and settles on a raised or elevated surface.

Where is this dust generated?

I study confinement operations, the poor ventilation and increased animals, feces, grain, etc. that contribute to the generation of dust. An enclosed facility (for pigs) from birth to finishing and going to market.

Where are these pig processing facilities located?

The top ten hog producing counties in North Carolina are in the southeast. They are in rural counties with cheaper property and in locations where many minorities don’t have access to healthcare facilities.

How many people work in pig processing facilities in North Carolina?

About 20,000 jobs in the hog industry. That’s probably elevated since I last checked.

Could breathing in this dust negatively impact workers?

It could impact workers negatively. There are reports of occupational asthma, organic dust toxic syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and inflammation of the nasal area in agricultural workers. My research studies how respiratory cells respond to hog barn dust extract exposures with emphasis on inflammation.

Do the lung diseases impact only human workers or also pigs?

The pigs have a natural adaptation to it. The hogs raised indoors have more mucus cells. It indicates the hog’s respiratory system are trying to defend themselves.

What, if anything, can be done to reduce illness in the meat producing workers?

It boils down to some really simple stuff:

  • Personal protective equipment including masks.
  • Increasing awareness and education. Make sure farm and agricultural workers know this is a risk.
  • Increase medical facilities and attention.
  • Increased cleaning and increase ventilation.

What are the challenges of instituting these changes?

Trying to find a way to make sure everyone understands what this means so they understand what the value is. Because you would have to spend money to clean or install ventilation.

Where does North Carolina rank in hog production?

North Carolina is third in the United States for hog production, following Iowa and Minnesota. Globally, the United States is third in the world for hog production, following China and the European Union.

How does hog dust in North Carolina facilities compare to Iowa and Minnesota?

Iowa and Minnesota have more distinct winters. The dust down here causes more adverse reactions. We have hotter summers and winters. The colder weather would help to reduce bacteria growth. Also, warmer weather could lead to an increase of dust aerosolized in contrast to cooler weather.

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