Residents concerned about air quality near poultry feeding operations near homes and schools in northeastern Oklahoma expect to learn by January whether funding will be awarded for a study proposed by University of Oklahoma researchers. 

A preliminary study undertaken this past summer by two occupational and environmental health experts from OU’s College of Public Health examined ammonia emissions from poultry feeding operations. Of 36 samples tested, only one exceeded the minimum risk level for exposure to ammonia.

Assistant Professor Jooyeon Hwang said the one sample that exceeded the minimum risk level of 0.10 ppm was collected near a house sandwiched between two poultry operations. The house, according to weather data, was directly downwind from a poultry barn on a windy day. 

While Hwang and others described the preliminary findings as good news, she said questions residents have about air quality at their homes and the schools their children attend cannot be answered without a more complete study. She told residents who attended a presentation Tuesday night that study could be undertaken as early as February if funding is made available through grants from the National Institutes of Health or Environmental Health Sciences. 

“It’s good for you there is not a very lot of ammonia concentration around your house,” said Hwang, who had difficulty reconciling the seemingly low concentration of ammonia with a strong odor that lingered longer than her return trip to Oklahoma City. “This is complicated — we know 24 hours is not nearly enough, we need 48-hour sampling so this will allow us to determine more ..., (and) sampling should be coordinated with the growing cycle of the chicks.”

Emissions from animal feeding operations have been a subject of concern for some time, but state and federal regulators have been slow — or declined — to address the issue. Among some of the constituents known to be released from poultry feeding operations are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds and airborne particulates. 

Occupational and Environmental Health Professor Margaret Levin Phillips said the researchers honed in on ammonia for their proposed study “because it is easily detected, and it is a very good marker.” 

“It is interesting that there seems to be far more research on how to keep the chickens healthy rather than what is happening to the workers,” she said. 

Pam Kingfisher, a consultant and founder of Green Country Guardians, said the proposed study is important in order to establish a data set. State agencies charged with regulating the industry have undertaken no similar efforts. 

“I think it is really important — when the state says we have no data or there is no air monitoring — we have that so we can assure not only the residents but the workers — we care about everybody’s health, we are all in this together,” Kingfisher said. “The houses are built, they’re here, we have to live next door to them ..., so if we don’t have data because the state has none, we have to create it.”

Hwang said the data can be used to raise public awareness and to support arguments for reasonable regulations and promote public health improvements.  

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