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When You Should Wear A N95 Dust Mask While Gardening

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Mold exposure in the garden

When was the last time you wore a NIOSH N95 dust mask while gardening? Better yet: When have you ever seen anyone wear a N95 mask while gardening? It might sound a little on the crazy side to do so, but as it turns out, protecting yourself from Farmer’s Lung and other diseases by wearing an N95 mask while gardening makes good health sense

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Farmers Need N95 Masks Too!

In a recent commentary on The Conversation, Melanie Bateman, an entomologist who studies and teaches about pesticide risk reduction and is a lecturer in Integrated Crop Management at the University of Neuchâtel writes, “…it’s not just health care workers and other care providers who need PPE—especially those N95 masks, technically known as respirators. These devices are also vital to the safety of workers in a host of other industries, from building trades to agriculture.”

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According to Ms Bateman, farmers and farm workers are classified by the Department of Homeland Security as essential workers who, rather than comply with recommended social isolation, must remain at their workplace in the fields to ensure that America remains fed.

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While the focus of the commentary is about the risk of pesticide exposure involving farmers and farm workers due to their high exposure to chemicals that often results in illness and injury ranging from occupational asthma and respiratory irritation to death, she mentions conditions like asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and “Farmers lung,” which even gardeners are susceptible toward.

Mold from Hay Exposure and Farmer’s Lung

For anyone who has worked on a farm during the hot humid haying season in the Midwest, nothing says dust and allergies like bucking bales of hay from the fields into massive stacks within old barns. At the very least, you will experience stinging arms from straw scratch and uncontrollable body itching, whose only respite is a cold dousing in a nearby creek by day’s end.

Another malady resulting during the haying season is what some refer to as a “summer cold” in which the lungs and throat become irritated with symptoms resembling cold and flu-like symptoms. For many, it is ignored and good health returns at the end of the haying season. For others, however, it turns out that in some cases those symptoms are the first signs that the body is under attack from mold that flies about on the fine dust particles that gets sucked into the lungs while handling hay. With enough repeated “summer cold” seasons, for some people this can progress into a health issue called “Farmer’s Lung.”

Farmer’s lung is an allergy condition where the body's immune system goes to work against the dust and mold, producing symptoms which may resemble anything from a cold to pneumonia. Because the dust is so fine, it gets past the defense systems in the nose and throat and reaches the inner parts of the lungs’ alveoli, where the lungs' internal defense system takes over. During this immune system response, permanent scar tissue (fibrosis) forms within the lungs. With repeated exposure to hay and mold over the following seasons, this accumulation of scarring in the lungs becomes severe enough to lead to permanent disability where the affected are typically always short of breath.

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While studies suggest that fewer than 10 percent of farmers are at risk of developing this condition, there is no way of finding out in advance whether you are immune or especially susceptible to even relatively smaller exposures to the dust and mold found in bales of hay. In fact, it’s not just farmers who can get farmer’s lung, but anyone who handles bales of hay such as landscapers and gardeners who use hay for lawn and garden mulching purposes.

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Signs and Symptoms of Farmer's Lung

It is easy to dismiss the signs and symptoms of Farmer’s lung condition as “just having a cold or flu” that "won't go away". However, this kind of attitude is dangerous, because any delay in prevention and treatment could lead to increased lung damage.

If you experience any of the following, it is recommended that you contact your doctor immediately for a checkup, letting him or her know that you have been exposed to dust from possibly moldy hay:

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• A sudden illness that develops a few hours after you have handled moldy crop materials
• A chronic cough
• A general feeling of tiredness or depression

Other Similar Hazards from Gardening
There are also other similar hazards of gardening that come from mold-containing matter in the garden—such as Sporotrichosis a.k.a. “rose gardener’s disease.”

Sporotrichosis is an infection caused by a fungus called Sporothrix that lives throughout the world in soil and on plant matter such as sphagnum moss, rose bushes, and hay. People such as rose gardeners get sporotrichosis by either through a cutaneous (skin) infection or by breathing-in the spores. Sporotrichosis outbreaks have occurred among forestry workers, people who work in tree nurseries and garden centers, and people who handle bales of hay.

Ands of course, exposure to pesticides and herbicides used around the home and in the garden are health risk hazards that can only be mitigated by wearing an appropriate dust mask or respirator.

Here’s an Informative Video on the Six Steps to Wearing the N95 Mask Properly

Prevention Measures that Lessen Your Risk While Gardening:

1. Wear a respirator that it is an approved toxic dust respirator such as the N95 mask, and familiarize yourself with correct procedures for using and maintaining the mask.

2. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect the skin from exposure and injury.

3. When working with potentially moldy material such as a bale of hay or straw, try to keep your distance and use a gardening fork to break open bale instead of bending over and using your hands.

4. Be sure to read the warning labels on commercial pesticide and herbicide products and follow their instructions for safe handling.

5. Have a hose nearby in case of exposure to quickly flush off any potential chemicals of dust and dirt that may contain mold.

If you have ever had Farmer’s Lung or a similar condition from exposure to mold while gardening, please let us know about it in the comments section bleow.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

References:

1. “A global mask shortage may leave farmers and farm workers exposed to toxic pesticides” The Conversation by Melanie Bateman.

2. “Farmer's Lung: It Takes Your Breath Away!” National Ag Safety Database

3. “Sporotrichosis” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fungal Diseases

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