Study finds Amish children’s exposures protect against asthma

Amish children’s exposures protect against asthma through reprogramming innate immunity

Iowa research finds house dust differences between communities affects immune development

A portrait of Peter Thorne, professor and head of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Peter Thorne

By probing the differences between two farming communities—the Amish of Indiana and the Hutterites of South Dakota—an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including Peter Thorne, professor and head of the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, found that specific aspects of the Amish environment are associated with changes to immune cells that protect children from developing asthma.

In the Aug. 4, 2016, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed that substances in the house dust from Amish, but not Hutterite, homes were able to engage and shape the innate immune system (the body’s front-line response to most microbes) in young Amish children in ways that may suppress pathologic responses leading to allergic asthma. The study is available online.

While the Amish and Hutterite communities have a similar genetic ancestry and share similar lifestyles, customs, and diets, their farming practices differ. The Amish have retained traditional methods. They live on single-family dairy farms and rely on horses for fieldwork and transportation. In contrast, the Hutterites live on large communal farms and use modern, industrialized farm machinery. This distances young Hutterite children from the constant daily exposure to farm animals.

Another striking difference between the two communities is the large disparity in asthma cases. About 5 percent of Amish schoolchildren aged 6 to 14 have asthma. This is about half of the U.S. average (10.3%) for children aged 5 to 14, and one-fourth of the prevalence (21.3%) among Hutterite children.

To understand this disparity, the researchers studied 30 Amish children 7 to 14 years old, and 30 age-matched Hutterite children. They scrutinized the children’s genetic profiles, which confirmed the remarkable similarities between Amish and Hutterite children. They compared the types of immune cells in the children’s blood, collected airborne dust from Amish and Hutterite homes and measured the microbial load in homes in both communities.

Thorne’s group, which also included Dr. Nervana Metwali from the UI’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, deployed novel air samplers for the study that do not require electricity. These Electrostatic Dust Samplers were placed into Amish and Hutterite homes to measure airborne particles and toxins in order to assess differences in exposures between these populations.

Results of the study showed that dust collected from Amish homes was “much richer in microbial products,” the authors note, than dust from Hutterite homes.

Thorne explained, “When we administered extracts of the two types of dust to mice, we were able to reproduce the differences in respiratory allergy that we observed in the Amish and Hutterite children.”

“The study augments prior work showing the significant role our environmental exposures play in asthma,” Thorne said. “The big advance is how our study beautifully demonstrated the key role of innate immunity in asthma in two rural populations with similar genetics.

“This is a great example of a major discovery arising from a multidisciplinary team of scientists drawn from multiple universities,” Thorne added. “Each member of the team brought unique scientific knowledge to the research.”

The National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the St. Vincent Foundation, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Foundation supported the study.

The study included researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of Arizona, Dr. von Hauner Children Hospital in Munich, Germany, and Allergy and Asthma Consultants, Indianapolis.

Media Coverage

Barnyard Dust Offers a Clue to Stopping Asthma in Children (The New York Times)

Amish kids help scientists understand why farm life reduces the risk of asthma (Los Angeles Times)

How a Cow in Your Living Room Could Make the Difference for Asthma and Allergies (Iowa Public Radio)

IEHA conference call for abstracts

The Iowa Environmental Health Association (IEHA) is pleased to announce that the call for abstracts for the 2016 IEHA Fall Environmental Health Conference is open now through July 1, 2016. The conference is October 18th -19th, 2016, at  the Iowa Valley Continuing Education Conference Center in Marshalltown, Iowa. Please review the guidance document below before submitting an abstract.

In addition to food safety, on-site sewage and water well abstracts, the conference is also interested in the following topics:

  • Lead/healthy homes
  • Meth cleanup
  • Mental health/hoarding/worker safety dealing with these
  • Animal Rescue League – hoarding/worker safety when encountering animals
  • Status of aquifers – geologic survey
  • Bed bugs / pest control
  • Fracking
  • Clean water act
  • Unsewered communities
  • Oil/gas pipeline (environmental effects plus everything that goes with these moving projects – food, lodging, etc)
  • Air Quality (indoor and outdoor)
  • Environmental health’s role in public health/history of environmental health
  • Motivational

To submit an abstract, please review the submission guidelines and utilize the abstract submission form.

Abstract Submission Guidelines

Abstract Submission Form (pdf)

Abstract Submission Form (docx)

Abstract Poster Submission Form

Abstracts are due July 1, 2016. 

Please play a role in shaping the content for the 2016 IEHA Fall Environmental Health Conference to assure that it continues to evolve to meet the needs of the region’s environmental health professionals.

Please contact Eric Bradley (click here for email) or at 563.326.8618 x8811 if you have any questions.

CPH launches new Executive-in-Residence Program with John Deere

Executive-in-Residence Laurie Zelnio (left) with CPH Dean Sue Curry
Executive-in-Residence Laurie Zelnio (left) with CPH Dean Sue Curry

On April 21, the UI College of Public Health launched a new Executive-in-Residence Program designed to integrate senior business leaders into the life of the college; provide opportunities for these executives to interact closely with students, faculty, and staff; and help shape future strategic directions.

The inaugural business leader in the Executive-in-Residence Program was Laurie Zelnio, Director of Environment, Health, Safety, Standards, and Sustainability for Deere & Company of Moline, Ill. Zelnio leads initiatives and programs to assure the company’s products and global operations are in compliance and focused on safeguarding customers, employees, and the environment while also reducing the company’s use of natural resources.

During the day-long experience, Zelnio held a series of individual and small-group meetings with faculty, students, and staff. She presented an overview of Deere’s global business operations, was a guest speaker in two classes, and held a college-wide seminar focused on global ethics and the challenges of managing environment, health, and safety issues in different cultures.

Executive-in-Residence Laurie Zelnio talking with seminar participants
Laurie Zelnio talks with seminar participants

Zelnio outlined several factors that fueled Deere’s interest in the Executive-in-Residence concept, including enhancing the number and quality of potential employees, collaborating on projects and research, and informing the company’s position on policies, standards, and regulations.

“So much that happens in the college has tremendous value for Deere and others in industry,” said Zelnio. “There are huge benefits to maturing our relationship with the College of Public Health. There are benefits for Deere, for the agricultural and construction industries, and we think for the college as well, whether you are trying to find locations for your graduates or partners for your projects and research.”

College of Public Health Dean Sue Curry highlighted the long-term benefits of strengthening connections with industry partners.

“The College of Public Health hosts many visitors as lecturers and conference participants, but the Executive-in-Residence program is designed to foster long-term relationships between the executives and our college,” said Curry. “These relationships will help guide new strategic initiatives.”


Global ethics topic of April 21 executive-in-residence seminar

Global Ethics: How a Global Company Ethically Manages
Environment, Health and Safety in Different Cultures


Zelnio Photo

Laurie Zelnio, MBA

Director, Environment, Health, Safety, Standards & Sustainability
John Deere & Company

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lunch Provided

RSVP by accepting the email invitation via Outlook.

Students, faculty, and staff are invited to join Laurie for a presentation and interactive discussion on Global Ethics.


Ms. Zelnio provides global leadership, strategy and governance for John Deere’s environment, health, safety, standards and sustainability functions. She leads initiatives and programs to assure the company’s products and global operations are in compliance and are further focused on safeguarding John Deere’s customers, employees, and the environment while also reducing the company’s use of natural resources. In this position Laurie has led a transformation of the environment, health and safety functions for the company developing a regional structure that provides technical oversight, professional development, and programs that align with country and cultural differences.

Laurie is kicking off the College of Public Health’s new Executive-in-Residence (XIR) program offered through the Institute of Public Health Research and Policy.  The XIR integrates senior business leaders into the life of the college and provides unique opportunities for experts to interact closely with students and faculty. While the college hosts many external practitioners as visiting lecturers and conference participants, Executives-in-Residence foster long-term relationships with the college and help to shape and execute new strategic initiatives.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa sponsored events.  If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact Ryan Bell in advance at or 319-384-1500