Aspergillosis or Fungus Diseases of the Lung Caused by Earth-born Pathogens in Soil and Compost

Question from Robin:
I am an old friend of Nancy S and Sharrie W. Have known them both close over 25 years…as our sons grew up together.

Sharrie told me about a lecture you gave within the last several months about being careful not to inhale fungus in the garden.

As it turns out I was in the UK working in my son and daughter in laws garden which had not been touched in years. As they had just moved in after it was remodeled I wanted to help them gut the garden so they could get an idea of how much space they had to work with. We were outside for about 7 hours. I came down with a horrible cough…and upon my return to Del Mar…had coughed my way to a pnuemothroax….

My question for you is, I was wondering if I would be able to get a copy of your lecture. I would like to give it to my Dr.’s at Scripps Clinic…They need some education…because they did not get it when I explained how I got the cough..

Answer from Pat:
Every hobby and profession comes with some hazards and wise precautions one can follow in order to protect oneself. This is especially true of gardening. However, working outdoors for seven hours in a garden, even a long-neglected garden and then subsequently coming down with a sore throat and later a collapsed lung might or might not have been caused by gardening. Your illness might have been caused by a bug you caught some other way. It might not come from a fungus. However I am happy to tell you a couple of precautionary tales I have been telling my classes which can help one to avoid some health hazards connected to gardening. Your question and my answer could help other gardeners so I am posting this correspondence on my website. (I am primarily an author of books on gardening, but I also keep up this blog and give many talks and slide shows on gardening during one month in spring and one month in fall.)

Though I sometimes use notes I do not write out my lectures. Therefore, I am sorry I cannot send you a printed copy of the lecture heard by your friends. I can, however, answer your question. You can print out this answer to your question and give it to your doctors.

A rare gardening hazard but one of which gardeners should be aware is the intake of fungus from dry leaves or from compost into the lungs. The disease is called aspergilliosis. I hope you do not have it. If your doctors have never heard of aspergillosis I would refer them to an article in the Lancet medical journal written by a Dr. David Waghorn who treated a gardener at Wycombe Hospital in Buckinghamshire in May of last year. Unfortunately, in this case the patient died,but it is likely that his lungs were already unhealthy due to his having smoked and also to his previous work in a foundary. This is a rare disease but gardeners should know not to breath in dust from compost or from dead leaves and debris. Here is a link to more information: There are many other links on the Internet that give the symptoms, dangers, and treatments of aspergillosis. Another disease that has been blamed on compost is legionnaires disease. Lung fibrosis is another mold-related disease affecting breathing. This one comes from spores that live on green rotting garbage or green rotting compost.

Aspergillosis doesn’t always come from compost. You can also get it from breathing in the warm dust from the back of a horse when curry combing a horse. I used to be a horsewoman and often groomed horses, but was careful not to breath in the dust. I often put a wet handkerchief over my nose when currying the back of my horse when his back was near head height. A friend of mine whom I used to ride with got aspergillosis from curry combing the back of her horse in winter when he had his thick winter coat and he had fungus on his dusty back under the saddle and her nose was too close to it as she cleaned him. Doubtless he had also been rolling in the pasture and that too got into his hair. Personally I believed in washing a horse off with the hose after riding and then you don’t have all that dust. The same applies to garden dust when raking up dead leaves. Just wet it down a bit so you don’t breath in all that dust.

A gardener whom I know got aspergillosis from compost and was treated for it and has survived. When she first took up gardening and began composting for the first time, she was so crazy about the smell of compost that she used to hold handfuls of freshly made compost close to her nose and breathe in the smell of it because it smelled so good to her. She just loved the earthy aroma of it. She told me she did this quite often and after a while she came down with a serious fungus disease of her lungs and it also affected the skin on her face, turning it red. My friend had to take a specific anti-fungal medicine for a long time to get rid of this lung disease and it was a serious disease. Even now it comes back occasionally when the weather is hot and moist and it affects her face when she gets hot working in the garden and it makes her face red. However, in her case it did not lead to a collapsed lung.

Because of this, I now warn the new gardeners, especially, in my classes not to put their noses close to compost and not to breath the fumes into their lungs. Don’t breath in the warm steam that emits from the top of a hot compost pile as you toss and turn it because this probably contains spores of fungus that can attach themselves to the inside of your lungs and grow there. On the other hand as a child I often spent time in a potting shed filled with the smell of compost and never got sick from it. So we have to have some balance and just use common sense.

The same thing goes for various garden dusts. One should not allow the dust from perlite, bone meal, blood meal, or granulated fertilizers to get into one’s lungs. This just means to use common sense in avoiding breathing in dust. On the other hand we do not need to become paranoid about it. I grew up on a farm. As a child I was always around farm animals and as a teen ager I was also around the dust made by straw, hay, chicken feed, animal bedding and manures. Photographs in an old album show me as a child close to a spreader liming a field and plenty of dust in the air and on my overalls. We often worked inside the barns and chicken houses and I’m sure I breathed in tons of bad things, but somehow I survived all this exposure to various agricultural dusts. Instead of making me sick, I got healthier which is the case for the majority of farm kids. Farm kids are known to have built in immunities to many diseases and they are not often subject to allergies having built up an immunity in childhood.

Another hazard to be wary of in a garden is getting a rose thorn in one’s hand. If one gets a rose thorn in one’s hand one should immediately go indoors, remove the thorn, clean the wound with alcohol or disinfectant, apply antibiotic ointment, and cover the wound with a bandaid. If you can’t get the thorn out soak it in hot water and apple cider vinegar to get it out. The same applies to bromeliads and also to thorns in sphagnum moss. These three garden thorns can carry a pathogen called Sporotrichosis or “rose gardener’s disease” a fungal infection that can afflict farmers and gardeners who have not taken care of a small hand wound. It can infect a wound, travel up the gardener’s arm, turn green, and even cause death if not treated with the correct antibiotics.

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