Beware Of Polluted Dust From Flooded Fields

Inhaling dust while working flood-damaged fields poses health risks.

Published on: Sep 26, 2011

An invisible hazard lurks in Northeast fields flooded by this fall's hurricane rains. It has prompted this warning from Gail Lapierre, AgrAbility outreach specialist at University of Vermont:

"One farmer I talked with recently spoke of a neighboring farmer who had chopped silty corn after a previous, much less severe flood. That farmer didn't wear respiratory protection and as a result suffered flu-like symptoms for a month after chopping the corn. He still has compromised lung function today.

"It's critical that you take care during flood clean-up, silage chopping or grain harvest to protect your lungs and avoid possible long-term health problems," she stresses. Whether you're cleaning up these fields, tilling them, chopping silage or harvesting corn, she strongly advises wearing respiratory protection to keep that dust out of your lungs – and for good reason. "I can't imagine that there are any fields that flooded that didn't contain septic waste or at least agricultural animal waste. Some may have had chemical or fuel waste.

"Besides these possible contaminants, the particulate matter of dust from dried mud and silt left when flood waters receded can cause physical irritation of the lungs and trigger asthmatic or other sensitivity reactions."

What to wear

Consider this dust contaminated. Protect yourself by wearing a dust mask (N-95 or higher) and nitrile gloves. The latter should be worn inside heavier work gloves and plan to have several pairs on hand.

You may reason that you don't need a dust mask since you'll be inside a cab. But as Lapierre pointgs out, most tractor cabs don't have an adequate air filtration system, "You need to wear a respirator (dust mask). And for it to work properly, a good seal must be created between the respirator and your skin."

"Sorry, but if you have a beard or mustache, you'll have to shave to 

get a good seal," she says. "But don't worry. You'll still have time to regrow your beard before hunting season."

Vermont's Department of Health has provided free respirators and nitrile gloves to all district health offices. If you don't live close to one of those district health offices, many hardware stores also stock them.

According to the manufacturer's directions, you need to change your respirator every four to six hours or sooner if it becomes difficult to breathe through. If, after changing to a new respirator, you continue to experience breathing difficulties, stop, get to a dust-free environment and seek medical assistance.

Let your doctor or other medical provider know that you've been working in a post-flooding area. If you have pre-existing respiratory issues, be sure to talk with your health care provider before getting involved with the flood clean-up.

For an extensive listing of post-Irene recovery information and resources, check out the UVM Extension website at www.uvm.edu/extension. A lot of help is available.