The University of Oklahoma’s Hudson College of Public Health plans to study the effects of large-scale poultry operations’ impact on air quality for those living near the commercial farms, which can hold tens of thousands of birds in a single chicken house.
The study, headed by professors Jooyeon Hwang and Margaret Phillips, who chairs the college’s department of occupational and environmental health, will monitor air quality inside and outside the houses of those who live within 3,000 feet of large-scale chicken farms in eastern Oklahoma.
In addition to monitoring ammonia levels in the air, the scientists also plan to examine the microbes in the dust that comes from the chicken houses by setting up dust collectors at nearby residents’ homes and sampling microbes in the residents nasal passages, Phillips said. The study should be completed by the end of 2021, she said.
Phillips said the researchers are currently looking for volunteers who live near poultry farms to participate in the study. The target is 25 households, she said.
“We’ll be looking to recruit people whose homes are as close as 500 feet from one of these farms, or up to 3,000 feet,” Phillips said.
Air and water quality have been two major issues that residents near the poultry farms have complained about since a boom in new and expanding poultry farms in eastern Oklahoma first began in late 2017, fueled by a new poultry processing facility by Simmons Foods’ across the Arkansas border in Gentry.
Often, residents who now live near the farms said they were given little or no notice of the farms coming in, and would sometimes wake up to find new poultry barns capable of holding thousands or tens of thousands of birds being built next door.
The Oklahoma Legislature eventually adopted some setback requirements for new or expanding poultry houses, but by then the flow of new houses had mostly slowed.
Pam Kingfisher, organizer of Green Country Guardians and owner of property near Double Spring Creek in, said the issue of doing an air quality study came up about a year and a half ago when a community member became interested in the public health aspects of the new poultry feeding operations.
Kingfisher, who is one of the local residents who pushed back against the proliferation of poultry feeding operations in eastern Oklahoma, said community members then got in contact with OU’s College of Public Health to look at the issue.
“It’s been a real blessing to have them show up and come in.”
Kingfisher said the idea was spurred by a lack of data and monitoring by state agencies who regulate the poultry industry and environmental issues.
“Every time we brought up concerns, the agencies would just say ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ or ‘there is no problem,’” Kingfisher said. “And we said ‘prove it, show us the science,’ and they’re like ‘we don’t have any.’ I can’t put up with that.”
Earlier this year, researchers put up four ammonia monitors at residences near poultry houses, though only one monitor recorded low levels of ammonia. However, Phillips said, the monitors were not active during the poultry growing cycle, which typically lasts about seven weeks — from chicks being shipped to the farms to the grown chickens being hauled away and the houses being cleaned out.
“We barely detected ammonia in one sample,” Phillips said. “The others were below the limit of detection, but that did help us work out how long we would have to expose this air sampler to get a meaningful measurement.”
Phillips said the full study will collect air samples looking for ammonia five times over the course of a year, with air monitors set up air monitors inside and outside of homes for 48-hour periods.
“We’re using ammonia as something to sample for since it is such an important component of the odors,” Phillips said. “It’s easy to sample for and analyze. It works really well as a marker for odor. It’s not highly toxic, but it’s unpleasant.”
The researchers will also collect dust samples from the home, as well as nasal samples from participants to see what effects the microbes in the dust from the chicken houses have on the microbes in humans.
“This isn’t like COVID testing, it’s not that long, scary swab that goes way back. This is a swab that the volunteers can swab their own noses. We’ll be looking at the microbes in their noses and seeing how that might be influenced by what’s in the dust,” Phillips said. “What we’re looking at is how might this microbiome change when people are exposed to dust that have a different set of microbes in it.”
The research is being funded by a federal grant of around $400,000 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Those interested in volunteering to participate in the study can contact Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.