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Don't hold your breath

CHERYL TEVIS 02/28/2011 @ 10:17am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Craig Woodford can count on a physical workout when he empties grain bins. Recently, the 59-year-old Greenville, Iowa, farmer had a lung function screening to see if his lungs were up to the job.

“The test was easy and quick,” he says. “I'm glad my lung function was very good. It helps that I do wear a mask in the bin.”

Although a lung function test is vital for farmers, it's often overlooked, says Carolyn Sheridan, RN, AgriSafe Network clinical director and Spencer (Iowa) Hospital AgriSafe director.

Sheridan says a farmer's medical chart “often mentions breathing difficulties, almost as a side note.” She says respiratory problems can trigger a domino effect.

“If you have shortness of breath, you can't exercise,” she says. “It limits cardiovascular fitness and adds to weight gain, which may lead to high blood pressure.”

The greatest respiratory risks on farms are organic dust and toxic gas exposures.

University of Iowa researchers have observed symptoms of chronic bronchitis in as many as 50% of swine confinement workers and grain handlers.

Other conditions include asthma, mucous membrane irritation, and organic dust toxic syndrome, says Kelly Donham, Iowa's Center for Ag Safety and Health.

Lungs naturally filter airborne hazards, but particles smaller than 10 microns will penetrate. Breathing through the mouth also bypasses this filtering system.

“Soluble gases like ammonia are absorbed into upper airway mucous membranes, normally,” Donham says. “If they're carried by dust particles, they penetrate deeper. Repeated exposure harms lung tissue, causing shortness of breath.”

AgriSafe Network offers services in 14 states and sells protective equipment, including respirators, online. “I tell farmers what you see in the air isn't the issue,” Sheridan says. “It's what you can't see.”

AgriSafe of Spencer Hospital provides a basic lung function test for Iowa Lakes Community College students in Emmetsburg. “We see 18-year-olds with reduced lung function after 10 years of farm exposure,” she says. “You may not be able to afford the best ventilation controls, but you can afford a respirator.”

Smoking quadruples the risk of developing disease from dusts and gases.

A lung function test (spirometry) is typically a diagnostic tool. AgriSafe uses it as a screening to determine a respiratory baseline. “We're working with insurance companies on reimbursement,” Sheridan says. “We hope they'll be convinced once they see these results.”

AgriSafe's basic test costs $190. “Most facilities don't have the sophisticated equipment used by Spencer Hospital,” she says. “A pulmonary screening using a tabletop machine costs about $100.” (A lung function test used to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan is about $350.)

“Chronic long-term exposure to farm dusts and gases is common and often debilitating,” Sheridan says. “But all it takes is one acute exposure to moldy grain.”

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