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Safety Aspects of Composting

Keeping safe when dealing with Compost

Posted by Angus Stewart

Aug 20

Safety Aspects of Composting

Compost is a complex biological material that contains all sorts of different organisms, bacteria and fungi in particular, but also potentially other organisms such as viruses and yeasts. Many of these are harmless or beneficial soil organisms; however there are some commonly found organisms which can cause health problems in humans.

There are definite health risks associated with many of these organisms that can be pathogenic to animals, including infections, respiratory problems and gastrointestinal problems. Legionnaire’s disease for instance is caused by bacteria of the Legionella species which can be present in both compost and also potting mixes. These species are found quite widely in Australia; and potting mix and compost is usually sold with a safety notice regarding this risk. There is a risk of inhalation of aerosol particles of Legionella and other bacteria from commercial potting mixes and composts, and also from soil and compost in garden beds and containers. It is very important that anyone working with compost is aware of these risks and if they feel they are at risk, to take appropriate precautions, including wearing a dust mask when handling soil or compost, and washing hands thoroughly afterwards.

There are many organisms found in soil which can cause problems.  

The most common paths of infection are through inhalation of bioaerosols, or ingestion of bacteria or spores, however, there are also pathogens which can enter directly through the bloodstream through cuts and wounds. Another of the more commonly found organisms in organic materials is the bacteria that causes tetanus, which can enter the bloodstream through cuts and lesions. Prevent soil or compost from coming into contact with any open cuts or wounds, in the case of tetanus immunisation is recommended and is widely used as a preventative measure.

Another area of concern is pathogens that can cause gastrointestinal problems such as Escherichia coli (E.coli as many people would know it). There are numerous strains of this bacterium, many of which are harmless and are a normal component of the gut of many mammals. However, there are other strains that can cause food poisoning and so the use of manure from mammals such as dogs and cats as well as meat scraps can be a risk factor and as such it is probably best to exclude these from your home compost unless you have a good working knowledge of how to minimise the risks of infection. Dog and cat manure can also contain pathogens such as roundworms and Giardia that can cause gastrointestinal problems. Avoid contact with the skin by wearing long sleeves and gloves and wear a face mask as well if you want to compost such materials.

Another health concern when working with compost which must be considered is the fine particles of soil or compost which are created when working with dry materials.

It is important to take precautions against inhaling fine particles of dust, particularly for those with Asthma and other respiratory ailments.  Wearing a dust mask will greatly assist in mitigating the risk of inhaling these particles, particularly when you are turning your compost or applying to soil or as mulch, as this is when stirring it up can create clouds of fine dust which poses a risk when inhaled. Fungal spores, dust mites and other organisms can be potential health issues especially for those with respiratory problems or compromised immune systems.

Common precautions should always be taken against inhalation or ingestion of soil and compost particles, particularly if you are in high risk groups including those over the age of 50 and people with immune or respiratory problems including asthma.

It is always good practice to wear a dust mask, gloves, wash hands frequently and ensure your tetanus vaccinations are up to date. Dry material should be dampened slightly by hosing or watering gently before disturbing it, this applies to compost, soil and potting mix, including when repotting container plants. Working in a well ventilated area will further reduce the chance of particle inhalation.

Composting is generally a very safe activity if you adopt an informed and common sense approach, however, it is vitally important to recognise that there are health risks and that by taking appropriate precautions you will be a happy and above all, healthy composter!


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