By Marsha D. W. Ward, PhD
It has been estimated that up to 10% of people have fungal (mold) allergies. Additionally, it is estimated that up to 90% of asthmatics are allergic and have an allergy trigger for asthmatic episodes. Asthma prevalence has increased over the last several decades for reasons that are thought to have an environmental component. In my laboratory we have been investigating the role of molds (fungi) in respiratory allergic disease for a number of years.
As a nation, we are trying to protect our resources and environment by developing domestic renewable energy sources. However, new technologies may have unintended environmental or human health effects. One area of energy technology development is based on biofuels—energy sources derived from biological material (biomass) such as perennial grasses, forestry and agricultural wastes. In our studies, the biomass is derived from perennial crop grasses such as Miscanthus, switchgrass, and sorghum.
My EPA colleagues and I are investigating the impacts of cultivated and feral (escaped from cultivation) biofuel crops on ecosystems. The goal is to develop more sustainable agronomic and processing methods for biofuel sources such as perennial and annual grasses grown in different geographical locations under various growing conditions. In collaboration with EPA ecologists, my laboratory will be investigating the allergic potential of these materials which will include pollen, leaves, panicles (flowering branches), and bacteria or fungi (molds/yeasts) residing on the grass leaves that serve as the source of biomass to produce biofuels.
Our studies will provide insight into the potential of various biomass sources to induce allergic and/or asthma-like responses. The data produced in these studies will help to ensure human health safety, particularly for workers who are directly exposed during cultivation or processing of the crops. It will also be useful to predict effects of incidental outdoor and indoor airborne exposures to the pollen, leaf biomass and associated microbes by the general public. The research will also look at the environmental impacts of biofuel crops being grown in different regions of the country.
If a potential risk is found, our research will help to provide the scientific information needed to minimize risks to workers and to the environment. This information could lead to the mitigation of both allergy and asthma induction.
About the author: Marsha Ward is a research biologist in the area of immunotoxicology who lives and works in North Carolina.