Health & wellbeing  |  22 Oct 2020

Health officials are urging that if your long weekend plans involve getting stuck into the garden, you should take extra care when handling potting mix and compost to avoid getting Legionnaires disease.

In Canterbury there is typically a spike in cases of Legionnaires in early November, which - according to the Canterbury District Health Board - can be attributed to increased gardening activity over the Labour weekend.

Legionnaires disease is a form of pneumonia. Last year there were 39 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 Ramon Pink. 

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

Dr Pink says there are five simple actions gardeners should take to avoid getting Legionnaires:

  • Wear a well-fitting disposable face mask and gloves before you begin gardening.
  • Open potting mix or compost bags carefully by using scissors to cut off the top.
  • Reduce dust by spraying some water into the bag.
  • Work with potting mix or compost in a well-ventilated outdoor area.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling potting mix or compost and before touching your face or removing the mask.

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

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.