Background: A protective effect of endotoxin exposure on atopy and asthma in farmers' children has been postulated. Studies of adult farmers have shown conflicting results but often lack exposure data. The prevalence of asthma in farmers with different exposure levels to microbial agents and irritant gases was compared.
Methods: Atopy was defined as a positive response to multiple radioallergosorbent tests (RAST) with a panel of 10 common respiratory allergens, and asthma was ascertained by a questionnaire using a stratified sample (n = 2169) of a farming population from south-eastern Norway. Exposure of farmers to total dust, fungal spores, bacteria, endotoxins, and ammonia was assessed by exposure measurements.
Results: The prevalence of asthma was 3.7% for physician diagnosed asthma and 2.7% for current asthma. The prevalence of atopy was 14%, but most asthmatic subjects were non-atopic (80%). Compared with farmers without livestock, (1) asthma was significantly higher in cattle farmers (OR(adj) 1.8, 95% CI 1.1 to 2.8) and pig farmers (OR(adj) 1.6, 95% CI 1.0 to 2.5), (2) non-atopic asthma was significantly higher in pig farmers (OR(adj) 2.0, 95% CI 1.2 to 3.3) and in farmers with two or more types of livestock (OR(adj) 1.9, 95% CI 1.1 to 3.3), and (3) atopic asthma was less common in farmers with two or more types of livestock (OR(adj) 0.32, 95% CI 0.11 to 0.97). Exposure to endotoxins, fungal spores, and ammonia was positively associated with non-atopic asthma and negatively associated with atopic asthma. No associations were found with atopy.
Conclusions: Exposure to endotoxins and fungal spores appears to have a protective effect on atopic asthma but may induce non-atopic asthma in farmers.