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Archives of Public Health

Volume 73 Supplement 1

Methods in Epidemiology Symposium

Open Access

Cattle mortality as a sentinel for the effects of ambient air pollution on human health

  • Bianca Cox1,
  • Antonio Gasparrini2,
  • Boudewijn Catry3,
  • Frans Fierens4,
  • Jaco Vangronsveld5 and
  • Tim Nawrot5
Archives of Public HealthThe official journal of the Belgian Public Health Association201573(Suppl 1):P22

Published: 17 September 2015


Air pollution is a trigger for human mortality. Although studies of spontaneous animal disease can provide additional insights, the short-term effects of air pollution on mortality have never been studied in animal populations. Animal sentinels are less subject to concurrent exposures, bias due to confounding, and exposure misclassification than human populations. Therefore we investigated the association between ambient air pollution and the risk of mortality in dairy cows.


We collected ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM10), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations at municipality level for 87,108 dairy cow deaths in Belgium from 2006 to 2009. We combined a case-crossover design with distributed lag nonlinear models in the warm and cold period of the year.


We found acute and delayed effects of air pollution on dairy cattle mortality during the warm season. The increase in mortality for a 10 μg/m3 increase in 2-day (lag 0-1) O3 was 1.3% (95% CI: 0.3, 2.2), and the corresponding estimates for a 10 μg/m3 increase in same-day (lag 0) PM10 and NO2 were 1.2% (95% CI: -0.3, 2.8) and 9.4% (95% CI: 6.4, 12.4), respectively. Compared to the acute effects, the cumulative 26-day (lag 0-25) estimates were considerably larger for O3 (3.6%; 95% CI: 0.4, 6.9) and PM10 (5.1%; 95% CI: 0.8, 9.5), but not for NO2 (2.9%; 95% CI: -4.1, 10.3). We did not find consistent evidence for air pollution effects during the cold period.


Our study in cattle adds to the epidemiologic findings in human populations and further improves its causality. Furthermore, our results indicate that air pollution effects go beyond short-term mortality displacement. Compared with human studies, we observed higher mortality risk associated with air pollution among cattle, suggesting that dairy cows may be sensitive indicators of air pollution and provide an early warning system for public health intervention.

Authors’ Affiliations

UHasselt, Diepenbeek, Belgium
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), London, United Kingdom
Scientific Institute of Public Health (WIV-ISP), Brussels, Belgium
Belgian Interregional Environment Agency (IRCEL-CELINE), Brussels, Belgium
Hasselt University, Diepenbeek, Belgium


© Cox et al. 2015

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.


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