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Press release West-Vlaanderen - Monday, January 15, 2018

Study “Intensive animal farming and the health of those living in the surroundings” performed for the Province of West Flanders (Belgium)

There is currently no scientific evidence that living close to an intensive animal farm in Flanders could pose a health risk. A large number of the studied theoretical health risks specifically for humans living or working around these farms are not present or could not be proven. For a number of risks, measures have been taken and/or further research is needed for further certainty.
This is the conclusion of a research study performed in assignment of the Province of West Flanders, performed by Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO).

Why a scientific study?

West Flanders has many intensive animal farms in a small area. As the governmental body responsible for [building and other types of] permits, the Province must work with the most recent and trustworthy scientific data. Recently the West Flemish Environmental Federation (WMF) published a document stating some possible connections between animal farms and human health. A Dutch study (VGO) from 2016 showed that, besides positive effects, also infections of the lower respiratory system and pneumonia occur more frequently in people living around poultry and goat farms. That was the reason for the Province to subsidize this overview study.

Elements from the study

  1. No clarity about endotoxins
    In one so-called health risk, the “endotoxins”, the report states that it is currently impossible to scientifically define and HANTEREN a health norm. Endotoxins are parts of bacteria – in this case from an animal environment – that are released at the time the bacteria die. These endotoxins could be released into the air from the animal housing. They are normally attached to larger particles, which only come into the upper respiratory system. In the Dutch study and in global research, however, people living around large animal farms tend to have positive effects in the upper respiratory system such as better resistance to pathogens and a protective effect for asthma and allergies. A recent study from Flanders Institute for Biotechnology even links this positive effect to the presence of endotoxins.
  2. Particulate matter is the most known health risk
    There is mention of complex processes in the formation of and spread of fine particulate matter. Main emissions from animal housing are particulate matter and ammonia. In the outside air, far from the barns, a chemical reaction can take place where the ammonia reacts with chemical pollutants in the air from industry and traffic. Then a secondary particulate matter is created that for everyone, not just the neighbors, can be damaging for the respiratory system. Newly built barns are now legally required to be low-ammonia. ILVO calls for a further study of the possible negative effects of particulate matter combined with ammonia.
  3. Bacteria, viruses, molds and parasites
    This study has also examined the health effects of bacteria, viruses, mold and parasites that can be present by the animals, and also the effect of medicines used in the barns. The possible transfer of veterinary drugs from the farm animal to the surroundings via the air is described in the literature as a non-existent or negligible risk.
  4. Q fever
    One disease of importance is Q fever, a bacterial infection that can cause abortion in animals. Eventual epidemics of Q fever in small ruminants (sheep and goats) can be dangerous for people living around infected animal housing. Epidemics of this nature are strictly followed up via the existing animal health controls of the FAVV.
  5. Pneumonia
    In the Dutch study (VGO), a small increased chance of pneumonia was found in humans living around poultry and goat farms. This is based on a study of medical information on Dutch people who live close to an intensive farming area or not. The comparison of these areas did show differences of other types as well, such as the presence of particulate matter from non-farming sources. ILVO thus suggests that further research should be performed.

The full study (in Dutch) is available on the website www.west-vlaanderen.be/pers and www.vemis.info/Kennis/Bibliotheek

More info

Provincie West-Vlaanderen
for interviews, quotes, policy matters:
Representative for Agriculture and Fisheries, Bart Naeyaert
bart.naeyaert@west-vlaanderen.be or +32 50 40 31 91 of +32 497 05 18 56

For other questions:
Communication West Flanders, Fanny Depijpere
fanny.depijpere@west-vlaanderen.be or +32 50 40 35 17 of +32 497 05 18 15

ILVO (Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)
Head of Technology and Food Science Unit, Lieve Herman
Lieve.Herman@ilvo.vlaanderen.be of +32 499 86 50 24

Researcher on ILVO Animal Housing Emissions, Eva Brusselman
Eva.Brusselman@ilvo.vlaanderen.be of +32 9 272 27 84

Communications ILVO, Greet Riebbels
Greet.Riebbels@ilvo.vlaanderen.be of +32 486 26 00 14

This message was written by the Province of West Flanders and translated at ILVO.