29 Oct 2014

Gardener wants masks sold at counter

5:55 am on 29 October 2014

A Christchurch man who contracted legionnaires' disease is calling on suppliers of compost and potting mix to provide masks at the point of sale.

Martin Ferriss, 52, contracted the disease in early September and spent a week in hospital with the infection.

Martin Ferris was hospitalised for a week and wants suppliers of potting mix and compost  to take more responsibility.

Martin Ferris was hospitalised for a week and wants suppliers of potting mix and compost to take more responsibility. Photo: RNZ / Michael Cropp

It's an important lesson for green thumbs around the country, as health authorities urge people to take safety precautions before taking advantage of the warmer weather and longer days to tend their gardens and plant summer vegetables.

Compost, potting mix, and soils often contain the bacteria which cause legionellosis, also known as legionnaires' disease. It is a severe form of pneumonia with a 10 percent mortality rate for those hospitalised with it.

Mr Ferriss caught the disease while working with potting mix last month and said it took about a week and a half for the symptoms to kick in.

"That Friday night, I went to bed I couldn't lie down on my left side - it was too sore - I was coughing away. And we got to about 5 in the morning and Lynette [Martin's wife] said to me, 'I'm taking you to A&E'".

Mr Ferriss was discharged after a week on antibiotics, painkillers and humidified oxygen.

Potting mix, compost and soils can carry the bacteria legionella.

Potting mix, compost and soils can carry the bacteria legionella. Photo: PHOTO NZ

He and his wife were vaguely aware of the risks associated with potting mix and followed the instructions on the packet to wear gloves and to open the bag in a well ventilated area. But nowhere on the packaging did it say to wear a mask, he says.

"The suppliers have got to take responsibility as well, so they should make it clear that more than just gloves, I would've thought, they should be putting on their warning: wear a mask."

Mr Ferriss believes masks should be included with potting mix and compost.

The chief executive of the Nursery and Garden Industry Association, John Liddle, says it is reviewing warning labels on potting and compost mix, but there was little that retailers could do.

"Ultimately, the packaging is up to the individual manufacturers. We're in a position where we can advocate what we believe is the wise thing to do, but we're not in a position to force them to do anything."

The director of Oderings Nurseries, Darryn Odering, said the company works with the Canterbury District Health Board to keep customers safe.

"We've been proactive in putting warning messages on the front and back of our potting mix bags. We've got big signage up saying of the dangers and, in fact, on the bag it says wear a mask and gloves."

Mr Odering said they are being as responsible as they can by dating their products, storing the soils out of direct sunlight and designing new bags with more prominent warnings. Oderings stores also sells kits that contain masks and gloves.

However, garden centres could only do so much and Mr Odering said gardeners need to take note of the warnings.

Hands should be washed thoroughly after using compost.

Hands should be washed thoroughly after using compost. Photo: PHOTO NZ

The Otago Medical School's professor, David Murdoch, has been testing all cases of pneumonia in Canterbury for the legionella bacteria since 2010.

Dr Murdoch recommends taking protective measures when working in the garden, including wearing dust masks.

"The standard recommendations are particularly around handling compost related products and soil. The recommendations are to use masks and gloves and wash hands afterwards," he said.

Next year, all pneumonia patients in New Zealand will be tested for legionnaires' disease, and Dr Murdoch expects that will help clarify how common it is in New Zealand.

Tips for safer gardening

  • Open potting mix bags carefully using scissors, rather than ripping them
  • Wear a disposable face mask and gloves and open the bag away from your face
  • Do your potting in a well ventilated area outside
  • Dampen down the potting mix or compost with a sprinkle of water to stop the bacteria from becoming airborne
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling potting mix and doing any gardening

Source: Canterbury District Health Board

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