Compost Can make You Sick

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Robert Pavlis

Compost sounds like such a great thing but it can make you sick. The chance of this happening is very small, but it is possible and people have died from it.

The first thing to be concerned about is the dust. Small dust particles can coat your lungs and cause breathing issues. This is a bigger concern with dry compost so it is a good idea to wet it down before you use it. It is also a good idea to wear a respirator.

There are also a number of diseases that you can catch from compost. The best way to protect yourself is with masks and gloves.

It is important to put these diseases into perspective – they are all extremely rare. I do get a regular tetanus shot and I do wear gloves to prevent infection on my hands. I don’t wear a respirator nor do I worry about getting sick from compost. However, it is important to know the symptoms in case you do get sick.

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Compost Can make You Sick
Compost Can make You Sick

Tetanus

Tetanus is an infection caused by a bacterium called Clostridium tetani, which is present everywhere in the environment, including soil, manure and compost. The spores can get into the body through broken skin while working in the garden.

From Hamilton Health Services, “A new survey shows 57% of adults don’t know that tetanus bacteria are commonly found in soil, dirt, and manure. Despite the fact that about a third of tetanus infection occurs while gardening, researchers found that 40% of those surveyed aren’t protected against the infection.”

The illness manifests itself in three to twenty-one days after infection with an average of 10 days. This results in sustained muscle contractions of the jaw, hence the common name lockjaw. Spasms of the jaw or facial muscles may follow, spreading to the hands, arms, legs, and back and blocking the ability to breathe. Tetanus is not contagious from person to person.

The best way to prevent this disease is to be immunized against it.

A rusty nail does not really cause tetanus, but the wound left by the nail can become infected and rusty nails are usually dirty.

Legionnaires disease

Legionnaires disease is the result of infection from Legionella bacteria which cause pneumonia-like symptoms. There are some 42 species of this bacteria and 18 have been linked to pneumonia-like infections in humans.

The EPA reports that, “Legionella are ubiquitous in natural aquatic environments, capable of existing in waters with varied temperatures, pH levels, and nutrient and oxygen contents. They can be found in groundwater as well as fresh and marine surface waters. ”

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Most cases of pneumonia are not tested for Legionnaires’ disease so we don’t know the actual number of cases. Some estimates suggest that only 10% are diagnosed correctly.

There have been reports in New Zealand, Europe and North America, that bagged potting soil caused Legionnaires disease. As people move away from peat-based potting mixes and use wood-based ones instead, there has been an increase in cases.

Legionella bacteria are certainly found in soil and potting mix. It is quite possible that it also exists in compost, although I have not seen a direct connection yet.

The disease seems to affect certain individuals and many others seem to be immune. The factors that contribute to this are mostly unknown. Smokers, heavy drinkers and people with immune diseases seem to be more susceptible, but the data about this is limited, mostly because very few cases have been studied.

Wood based potting mix may increase the risk. Compost is more likely to spread the disease if it has high levels of moisture and nutrients, the perfect place for bacteria to grow. However the risk of this disease is very low.

Farmer’s Lung

Farmer’s lung is an allergic reaction to some types of mold in certain plants such as hay, corn, grass for animal feed, grain and tobacco. It is caused by breathing in dust which causes inflammation or swelling on the lungs.

Symptoms usually show four to eight hours after exposure and can include dry cough, chills, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath and a general feeling that you’re sick.

Histoplasmosis

Histoplasmosis is a disease caused by a fungus called Histoplasma capsulatum. It usually affects the lungs but it can also infect eyes, skin and adrenal glands. Symptoms are similar to Farmer’s Lung. They are normally mild but histoplasmosis can be severe and produce an illness similar to tuberculosis.

The organism thrives at moderate temperatures in rich moist soils, especially ones containing bird droppings.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

5 thoughts on “Compost Can make You Sick”

  1. Hello – I am a family physician. I can’t find fault with your information, but I will add a little to it. I don’t think most healthy adults need to fear compost or use special protection when handling it. The frail elderly and immunocompromised people would be at more risk for these illnesses, and taking basic precautions (avoiding opening bags near your face, wetting it down) would be a good idea. Most of the disorders you list above tend to create mild illness or no illness in a healthier adult – Legionella, for example, is extremely common in water sources in residential homes, but most people will not become infected with it even when they are routinely exposed. The main risk factor for Legionella pneumonia is having poor health. I agree 100% with your recommendation for a tetanus vaccine – adults should be boosted every 10 yrs.

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