A cautionary tale

Sarah Carr next to the pots she was potting in December before she got sick. Photo: Tracy Hardy.

Little did Sarah Carr know that when she potted a couple of plants it would result in a brush with death, then seriously compromise her ongoing health and her career.

“I’m only 20 per cent of what I used to be.” And she doesn’t know what the prognosis is. “I don’t know what my new ‘normal’ will be.”

This is a cautionary tale about the hazards of handling potting mix or compost. “I don’t want people to endure what I have.” It’s also a menace which Sarah suspects most people are unaware of. She has a warning. “At all times wear a mask and use gloves.”

The Papamoa woman considers herself one of the lucky ones. “Most cases I’ve since heard about ended up in intensive care, in comas, some with permanent brain damage and loss of extremities.”

The culprit is a bacteria which causes Legionellosis, also known as Legionnaires’ disease. The disease can vary in severity from a flu-like illness to severe pneumonia. Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath and coughing. It can be a serious disease requiring hospital treatment. As it did with Sarah.

Infection occurs when dust from the compost or potting mix is inhaled. “My story is not a complaint,” says Sarah. “It is a warning.”

She became unwell five days after potting the plants. “I had severe headaches, high temperature and feeling unwell.” On Monday a trip to the doctor, on Tuesday a trip to the hospital. “I was sent home with a virus diagnosis.”

Three days later she had become seriously ill and went back to hospital, this time in an ambulance where she was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. “I was pumped with antibiotics and other drugs and I was able to come home after a week.

“All this from potting mix.”

It didn’t stop there. Three months later the ANZ bank employee is only doing a couple of hours a week at work. “They have been very supportive and I expect to recover, albeit slowly.

“I will probably have permanent lung damage and won’t live the life I did in terms of exercise and general fitness,” says this previously very active runner and power-walker. “It’s obvious to everyone who knows me that I am struggling.”

However, Sarah still thinks of herself as one of the lucky ones considering the outcomes for other sufferers.

And she wants people to be aware of the dangers handling potting mix and compost. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

Her message is simple and clear. “Handling potting mix? Wear a mask and gloves at all times.”

Palmers warn of organisms harmful to humans on its website.

But Sarah suggests retailers should give customers a verbal warning at the checkout and offer masks when selling the product. Apparently, there are warnings on the bags. “But in tiny writing and I wasn’t looking for a warning on a potting mix bag.”

Sarah is aware many people using potting mix never have any issues. “But me, I will not be taking any chances again.”

The Bay of Plenty District health Board also has some suggestions. Medical officer of health, Dr Neil de Wet, advises opening bags gently and away from the face.

Cut the bag with scissors rather than tearing, water gardens gently using low pressure, avoid working in unventilated spaces. Neil also advises washing hands after handling soil or compost, and especially recommends use of a face mask.