Not just for farmers–steps to avoid farmer’s lung |

Not just for farmers–steps to avoid farmer’s lung

Rachel Spencer
for Tri-State Livestock News
Minimizing exposure to common irritants on the farm is key to avoiding long term health concerns. Photo by Rachel Spencer

Reducing Risk

Follow these recommendations from Penn State Extension to reduce the risk of contracting farmer’s lung:

• Identify and reduce the contaminants in your work area.

• Decrease your exposure to contaminants (e.g., mold spores).

• Reduce mold spores by using commercially available mold inhibitors.

• Harvest, bale, store, and ensile grains at the recommended moisture level to reduce mold growth.

• Examine your feeding system to identify ways to automate feeding to decrease the release of airborne mold spores.

• Avoid working in dusty places in confined space areas.

• Ventilate (e.g., fans, exhaust blowers, etc.) to mechanically remove air contaminants.

• Wear a double strap dust mask or organic dust filter equipped respirator rated at least N95 to reduce your exposure to contaminants.

The air many associate with the farm or ranch is that found in the wide, open spaces- fresh and clean. While that is undoubtedly often the case, sometimes farmers and ranchers are breathing air that can cause serious health concerns. Pesticide vapors, field dust, mold spores, and nitrogen dioxide found in grain bins are among the most common culprits leading to common pulmonary complaints from those involved in production agriculture.

Farmer’s lung, also referred to as hypersensitivity pneumonitis (FHP) is a noninfectious allergic disease that affects normal lung function. It is an occupational disease marked by shortness of breath; tightness in the chest; fatigue; a dry, unproductive cough; muscle ache, headache, chills and fever as a result of inhaling mold spores. According to Penn State Extension, most symptoms appear 3-8 hours after exposure with the most serious symptoms lasting 12-48 hours. Serious cases, however, can last up to two weeks.

“Anytime you have an exposure to ag dust, bio aerosols, chemicals, you can potentially have that hypersensitivity,” said Nicole Alexander, PA-C, a Certified Physician Assistant at Family Physicians of Laramie. “They key is decreasing the exposure whether it’s mold on grains or a ventilation system that’s not a recirculating one.”

“Don’t skimp on the exposure,” Alexander said. “If you know you’re going to be around something, use the proper personal protective equipment so you can minimize exposure. People who have farmer’s lung or hypersensitivity pneumonitis can progress to a lung transplant; it’s very serious.”

A lung transplant is, she stresses, a worst-case scenario, but the danger of exposure is an everyday risk for many farmers and ranchers that can be managed and minimized. The use of PPE is crucial in preventing exposure to many irritants and gasses found on the farm that can even be deadly.

Alexander stresses the importance of cultivating a relationship with a health care provider through regular, at least annual, visits. This allows providers to familiarize themselves with their patients, their possible exposures, ailments, and their personalities, all of which better equip healthcare providers to make a possible diagnosis efficiently and to provide timely follow up care.

“If there are any symptoms like a prolonged cough, coughing up blood, or shortness of breath then that should be addressed,” she said. “When you come see the doctor, let them know, ‘I’m a farmer, I am exposed to these,’ so that more of the criteria that goes along with how we diagnose that can be addressed sooner.”

The allergic reaction to the mold spores, common in hay, stored grain, and high moisture silage, may represent flu or pneumonia symptoms or chronic symptoms akin to a nagging chest cold. A trip to the doctor’s office for treatment can reduce long lasting effects and damage.

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