Detection and characterisation of inflammatory agents associated with bioaerosol emitted from biowaste and intensive agriculture

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Environment and Technology


The biowaste (eg composting) and intensive agriculture (eg housed poultry / pigs) industries emit bioaerosol of significance to human health. Whilst some progress has been made in characterising emissions from these industries relatively little headway has been made regarding the linked research questions of: understanding exposure of the general public to bioaerosol; putting process-based exposures into the context of background exposure to natural bioaerosol (or other anthropogenic sources); quantifying health risk and setting health-based standards. A critical limiting factor in all of these areas is the lack of advanced microbiological methods (sampling, analytical, interpretative) to quantify and qualify bioaerosol emissions and dispersion. Our current evidence base is almost entirely reliant on short duration "snapshot" sampling and culture-dependent microbiology. Whilst traditional microbiology remains fit for purpose in specific circumstances, new fast and efficient methods are needed to understand the nature and significance of non-viable bioaerosol fractions and to develop a new generation of monitoring approaches to deal with the research questions posed above.
Aerosolised endotoxin is an attractive research subject in the context of this NERC programme. It is ubiquitous in biowaste and agricultural emissions. Previous occupational bioaerosol research has established an exposure-response relationship. In the Netherlands, endotoxin is regarded as the prime candidate for health-based bioaerosol emission limits / exposure guidelines for workers and the public. Yet, confidence in the development and implementation of evidence-based regulation of this bioaerosol molecule continues to be constrained by gaps in our fundamental understanding of the nature of endotoxin in ambient air which in turn stems from limitations in measurement techniques. In this research we aim to develop new methodologies capable of characterising and quantifying emissions of endotoxin in air.
- develop new methods to size fractionate endotoxin and elucidate structural features;
- develop a novel biosensor for rapid detection of endotoxin, other inflammatory agents and cells (live/dead)
- use the WIBS real-time bioaerosol sensor to understand emission and dispersion of bioaerosol including endotoxin
- characterise industry-specific bioaerosol emissions at composting and farm sites
- detect microbial pathogens at biowaste and intensive agricultural facilities using novel methods
- generate improved exposure assessments around biowaste / intensive agricultural facilities using dispersion modelling and Openair.
Whilst our work plan focuses on new endotoxin detection methods we are cogniscent of the fact that there are other biomolecules in air that promote inflammation when inhaled. These will be detected by the novel biosensor and we aim to distinguish the signalling pathways and demonstrate how the cells respond to different biomolecular challenges.
The research team has unparalleled experience in translating cutting edge bioaerosol science into policy and practice. Uncertainty with respect to health effects from regulated industrial processes is deleterious to all stakeholders concerned including the public, regulators, the Government, industry and investors. The public remains fearful of the potential health impacts. Regulators face uncertainty in terms of striking the right balance between public health protection and encouraging economic development. Planning and licensing delays constrain Government waste strategy and economic development initiatives and create problems for entrepreneurs trying to deliver Government targets and establish viable businesses. Whilst this research will be underpinned by excellent new science, it is clear that the impact agenda is driven by the potential for translating this into a regulatory science evidence base, new regulatory guidance and models for the protection of public health.

Planned Impact

The key beneficiaries of this research are:
-Policy makers and regulators of biowaste and intensive agriculture
-The biowaste and intensive agriculture industry
-Industry associations e.g. Renewable Energy Association and NFU
-The general public living near these facilities
-Health Services, Health & Safety Executive and Public Health England

Emission of bioaerosols from composting and intensive agriculture is a critical concern for the public; for the industry, which needs to generate the business confidence required to secure investment in new infrastructure (and which often faces opposition from local people at the planning stage); for regulators who need robust evidence for proportionate decisions; and for the delivery of the Government waste strategy.

The impact of this proposal falls into three categories from the RCUK typologies:

Improving health & wellbeing
The results from this research will be used to improve current bioaerosol dispersion modelling protocols, allowing improved predictions of downwind concentrations and the duration of exposure to bioaerosols from composting. This research will provide a significant step towards defining clear exposure limits for environmental exposure to bioaerosols.

Evidence based policy-making and influencing public policies
The Environment Agency (EA) based its first position statement on bioaerosols from composting in 2001 on the limited bioaerosols information available at the time at a time of unprecedented growth in the UK composting industry. The EA had to strike a balance between: the precautionary principle (in the absence of a strong evidence base); the commercial needs of a burgeoning industry; and the national requirement to divert organic waste from landfill. Whilst the evidence base has been significantly strengthened in the past ten years, there is a way to go before regulatory policy on bioaerosols in ambient air could be considered stable (the fact that the current position statement is referred to as "interim" guidance indicates that regulation is expected to change as new information becomes available). The EA currently has no formal position statement on bioaerosols from intensive agriculture and it needs one.

The research consortium has strong links with the EA. The key impact of this research will be improvements in the EA's ability to regulate composting and intensive agriculture, as well as influencing the planning and design of control mechanisms for bioaerosols, essential for improving the health and wellbeing of UK citizens. This research will provide the scientific evidence to support regulatory decision making and provide confidence to the public that these facilities can be safely operated.

Enhancing the research capacity, knowledge and skills of public, private and third sector organisations
This research will benefit the site operators by developing and testing novel methods for monitoring bioaerosols; provide insights into the mechanisms that influence dispersal of bioaerosol emissions; and support the development of procedures to reduce their impacts on the environment. Additionally, the novel science generated may reduce the requirement for expensive monitoring regimes and so provide economic benefits to site operators.

Other potential beneficiaries include industry bodies who are providing information to their members regarding bioaerosols, and who have experienced difficulties due to the lack of information in this area. These include the Renewable Energy Association, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the NFU.

We also anticipate commercial opportunities arising from the research. We have strong links with Droplet Measurement Technologies who are developing the WIBS and with Lonza who make endotoxin detection kits.

The mechanisms to achieve impact are described in the Pathways to Impact.


10 25 50
Description To date research colleagues (Cranfield and OU) have made measurements of bioaerosols using a novel real-time bioaerosol monitor (SIBS) and other monitoring techniques. We (UWE) have building a modelling framework integrating project data with best practice literature model the released of bioaerosols from composting and poultry units. We have been able to interpret the data along side real-time PM and meteorological data and site activity data. This gives a new continuous picture of the generation of emissions from composting/poultry facilities and their relationship with onsite activities. This has helped inform the development of Time Varying Emission Factors as input to dispersion modelling and provide a model verification dataset thereby improving the accuracy of the model set-up and the robustness of the conclusions.
Exploitation Route The findings are of use to the environmental regulators, air quality professionals, dispersion modelling communities and SIBS users. Additionally, the better practice methodological approach applied to the dispersion modelling may be of benefit to the site regulators and site operators to better understand and work towards minimising the environment and public health impact of these facilities..
Sectors Environment

Description The findings of this research are continuously being fed through to the Environment Agency and Public Health England in support of their evolving updates on bioaerosol regulation from industrial facilities.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment
Description Environment Agency Secondment
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Dr Ben Williams, with the support of Prof Enda Hayes, from UWE has been seconded into the Environment Agency as part of a development/implementation team (Prof Hayes is part of an advisory committee) in undertaking a systematic review and redesign of the UK air quality monitoring network. As part of this secondment Dr Williams is undertaking a baseline assessment of the existing network and exploring the drivers that influence its growth and evolution. He is leading on a nationwide consultation on the redesign of the network based on (a) current challenges / barriers; (b) new and emerging issues (e.g. bioaerosols, micro-plastics); (c) new priority sources (e.g. agriculture, biowaste); (d) solutions for a new network; and (e) implementation plans for the next 5 years. One of the primary challenges facing bioaerosol research is the lack of long term monitoring both from a trend perspective but also form a model validation perspective. Involvement in this Environment Agency committee to date has allowed bioaerosol monitoring to be potentially considered as part of the national network.
Description Improving Health with Environmental Data (NERC 2016)
Amount £29,688 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P010806/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
End 04/2018
Description Odour and Bioaerosol Research Proposal with University College Dublin 
Organisation Cranfield University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution EndotoxII researchers from University of the West of England and Cranfield University collaborated with University College Dublin to bid into the Irish EPA STRIVE Research Programme to undertake research on odour and bioaerosol monitoring and modelling for agriculture and waste facilities. Unfortunately the proposal was unsuccessful. However conversations with UCD have continued and knowledge/advice exchanged between the research teams particularly around modelling of emissions from poultry units. This discussion has also been linked into ongoing discussions and knowledge exchange activities through an EU COST Action Programme called LivAGE which is exploring the monitoring and modelling of ammonia and gaseous emissions from intensive agriculture.
Collaborator Contribution EndotoxII researchers from University of the West of England and Cranfield University collaborated with University College Dublin to bid into the Irish EPA STRIVE Research Programme to undertake research on odour and bioaerosol monitoring and modelling for agriculture and waste facilities. Unfortunately the proposal was unsuccessful
Impact Proposal was unsuccessful
Start Year 2017
Description UWE/Imperial Modelling Collaboration 
Organisation Imperial College London
Department Department of Chemistry
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration has brought two modelling and data analytic groups together (UWE and Imperial) who have been working on developing dispersion modelling protocols for composting facilities in England and determine the health impact of bioaerosols in the vicinity of these facilities. Every composting site in England was spatially mapped and imported into a regulatory approved atmospheric dispersion model (ADMS) and using Apsergillus Fumigatus as a bioaerosol indicator, the bioaerosol footprint and impact was quantified and spatially mapped across England. The UWE team undertook this spatial dispersion modelling drawing upon the knowledge derived from the EndotoxII project. This bioaerosol spatial data was then assessed against population weighted postcode centroid to consider potential exposure risk and also as temporal population health data to determine the health burden.
Collaborator Contribution The collaboration has provided opportunities for knowledge sharing to enhance the quality, assumptions and accuracy of the modelling scenarios being developed in EntotoxII project.
Impact Collaboration brings air quality practitioners and public health professionals together. The collaboration has led to the development and submission of a successful proposal to NERC to run a short parallel research project entitled "BIOlogical air pollution Modelling and associations with Lung Disease (BIOMOLD)" (see Funding section). While EndotoxII will focus on the enhancement of dispersion modelling scenarios and the integration of novel datasets at one particular site, the BIOMOLD project has undertake basic modelling for every composting site in England to determine exposure and potential health impacts. To date two papers has been published (in collaboraton with the EntotoxII project - see Publications return) on the exposure risk and a second paper on the health burden is under development. The main conclusion to date is that approximately 7 million people live within 4km of a composting site and therefore are at potential risk of exposure.
Start Year 2016
Description UWE/NILU Data Analysis Collaboration 
Organisation Norwegian Institute for Air Research
Country Norway 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution This collaboration brings together data analysis professionals to discuss data analysis techniques particularly related to SIBS monitoring data. UWE has offered an approach using the R Statistical Programme and the Openair package.
Collaborator Contribution NILU has provided a knowledge sharing opportunity to discuss data analysis approaches. Techniques discussed include the potential applications of machine learning / artificial intelligence and principal component analysis.
Impact No formal output - this was an informal knowledge exchange collaboration in which data scientists from UWE and NILE shared ideas and suggest possible strategies.
Start Year 2016
Description Informal meeting NESTA Challenge Prize 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Broad talk and discussion on air quality challenges in the UK. This included an overview of the EndotoxII project, sources of bioaerosols and the impact on health. This talk will be used to inform a workshop in March 2017 to build towards the development of a new NESTA Challenge Prize.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Informal meeting Taylor University Kuala Lumpur 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Overview presentation to academics from Taylor University on air quality management research at UWE including a detailed overview of the EndotoxII project aims and objectives. This presentation raised awareness of the potential sources and impact of bioaerosols while also exploring the transboundary impact of biomass burning in SE Asia
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description International Network of Environmental Forensics Conference (10-12 July 2017, Beijing, China) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on 'Spatial and temporal modelling of bioaerosols from intensive agricultural facilities in England' by Ben Williams (UWE) to an audience of environmental forensic scientists and policy makers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Symposium - Bioaerosols, microbiome and lung disease 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Joint meeting of Public Health England and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Netherlands with bioaerosol researchers to explore and disseminate latest research and thinking on bioaerosols in the UK and the Netherlands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description UK Aerosol Society Focus Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Meeting bring UK and International academics, practitioners and industry together to discussion and share current knowledge on bioaerosol monitoring and modelling and how this may influence regulatory processes and policy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017