Health & wellbeing  |  25 Oct 2019

Christchurch gardeners are being warned to take care when handling potting mix and compost because of the risk of Legionnaires disease.

Legionnaires disease is a form of pneumonia. Last year there were 48 hospitalisations in Canterbury due to Legionnaires.

“It’s caused by the Legionella bacteria that live in moist organic material and people can catch the disease by inhaling airborne droplets or particles containing the bacteria,’’ says Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey.

“Gardeners are at particularly high risk of catching Legionnaires' disease as the bacteria thrive in bags of potting mix and compost,” says Dr Humphrey.

In Canterbury there is typically a spike in cases in early November that can be attributed to the warmer weather and increased gardening activity.

Dr Humphrey says there are five simple actions gardeners should take to avoid getting legionnaires.

Open potting mix or compost carefully – use scissors instead of ripping the bag.

Wear a well-fitting disposable face mask and gloves, and remember not to touch your mask when gardening.

Reduce dust by dampening down potting mix or compost with a sprinkle of water.

Work with potting mix or compost in a well-ventilated outdoor area.

Thoroughly wash your hands after handling potting mix or compost.

“Legionnaires’ is a very serious illness and following these simple steps can be lifesaving,” says Dr Humphrey.

The illness may be mild but can sometimes be fatal. It is more common in older people, particularly if they smoke, have poor immunity or a chronic illness. However, sometimes even healthy young people have died from legionella pneumonia.

Symptoms can include dry coughing, high fever, chills, shortness of breath, muscle aches, headaches and diarrhoea.

If you have these symptoms, you should contact your general practice team right away for advice, and let them know you if have been handling potting mix or compost.

Find out more about Legionnaires.