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Hazards and risks in compost handling.
The author of this website is
NOT a specialist in pathology, or microbiology etc. He is
a hobbyist in organic
composting and vermiculture (in fact, he is an engineer who
loves teaching mathematics). The
guidelines given here
are only to sensitise you on the possible risks in handling
or working with
compost. There may be many more risks involved. Play safe.
The brighter side
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Your mileage may
vary. Health concerns relating to compost are dependent both on the
individual and on the material being composted. Just as individuals vary in their
resistance to disease, a few individuals may be particularly
sensitive to some of the organisms in compost. Conditions that
may predispose individuals to infection or an allergic response
include: a weakened immune system, allergies, asthma, some
medications such as antibiotics and adrenal cortical hormones, or
a punctured eardrum. People with these conditions should avoid
turning compost piles, or take precautions to minimize exposure.
Health concerns relating to compost are dependent both on the
individual and on the material being composted. Consult a medical
Dog and cat
manures can contain harmful pathogens and should be avoided.
Animal faeces usually contains a virulent pathogen called
While few human pathogenic organisms are found in vegetative
wastes, normal sanitary measures (i.e., washing hands before
touching food, eyes, etc.) are important. Although most people
are unlikely to have any problems, there are a few concerns which
place some individuals at risk. To minimize these potential
risks, common OSHA approved dust masks can be worn under dry and
dusty conditions, especially when the compost is being turned. A
generous spray of water, on your compost pile, before raking it
or turning it, can prevent dust flying off, and can also reduce
the chances of a spontaneous fire.
The high populations of many different species of molds and fungi
in an active compost process can cause allergic responses in some
people, though most others experience no adverse reaction. One of these
fungal species, Aspergillus fumigatus, can infect the respiratory
system of a sensitive person who is heavily exposed. A keen
gardener in UK died after contracting a rare lung infection from
the compost he spread on his garden. From what his partner
described, he had been surrounded by a cloud of dust when he
opened several bags of compost that he had prepared from his
garden to use. The patient died from complications related to
aspergillosis, a disease caused by spores of Aspergillus
fungus which grows on dead plant or animal material. Blood
samples tested after his death later confirmed the diagnosis of
aspergillosis. This fungus, Aspergillus
fumigatus, is also encountered very commonly in our routine
lives. It is the bluish-green wooly/cottony growth on stale bread, over-
ripe papaya, or over rotting oranges. There are other fungi of the
aspergillus family, commonly
found in rotting foodstuff: a deep green growth is
Aspergillus flavus, and a
black growth is Aspergillus niger.
Wear a face mask if you are handling large
volumes of packaged compost. Turning of compost piles is what
releases most of the airborne particles and gases that can
cause symptoms in some people. So, if a pile is turned, be
aware of the wind direction and of the susceptibility of those
nearby and those doing the turning.
If you have open cuts, or bruises, it is not a good idea to work
with compost. The wounds may get infected easily. Take rest, till
your wounds heal.
Wearing gloves while handling compost, can dramatically reduce
your chances of infection. Wash your hands well, with an
antiseptic soap, after you handle compost with your hands.
There is another reason why wearing gloves and protective
goggles, and face masks, is a good
idea. Sometimes, compost piles are homes to many crawling
and flying insects, flies and bees. You may occasionally get stung or
bitten by any of these villains, when you disturb their habitat.
You also dont
want irritating dust, or tiny insects, to fly into your eyes.
Protective masks, gloves, goggles will help you escape many
such nasty surprises.
Keep your kids, and toddlers, away from the compost
pile (or compost pit).
There is also another aspect of safety with composts. Large heaps
of compost, especially when dry, are prone to catch fire easily.
This is particularly true when handling composts in large
quantities, on an industrial scale. Play safe, avoid smoking
while working on compost. Make sure that there are no loose or
frayed electric wires passing nearby. They could cause a
short-circuit and trigger a major fire, or could even give you a
nasty shock when you touch the compost pile. The composting
process generates a lot of heat. Composting also creates
combustible gases. So, that innocent looking compost pile could
actually be a volcano. Watch out !
The brighter side
There is a certain amount of risk in all forms of human activity,
including composting. Let the risks described above, not
discourage you from composting, vermiculture, and organic farming. Just be
careful, and take precautions. The benefits of using compost,
far exceed the risks involved. So, do not turn away from your
composting activities. Just a little care can help you avoid a lot of
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