Human health concerns from grain dusts and molds during harvest


By John Shutske, Paul Esker and Steve Kirkhorn

For the Farmer

Exposure to grain dusts and molds

If you produce corn, soybeans, or other crops in Wisconsin or elsewhere in the Midwest, dust exposure while working is inevitable. Breathing in grain dust can affect the health and overall comfort for grain producers and others who work in the grain industry. Exposures can occur:

• In the combine

• While unloading

• During drying and processing

• In bins

• In an area near any of the above situations

• While grinding/mixing grain and other feed products

Grain dust is a complex soup that is made up of both organic and inorganic particles. Some of these can be inhaled easily, and depending on their size, can find their way deep into various parts of the respiratory system causing a range of adverse health effects. Grain dust is biologically active and is made up of a combination of:

• Plant material

• Mold and mold spores

• Insect parts and excerta

• Bacteria

• Endotoxins (toxins contained in the cell walls of some bacteria)

• Soil

Exposure to small concentrations
during normal work

Most people will have some reaction to dusty conditions during grain harvest. Often, this will be a nuisance reaction or irritation, but in some cases, more problematic health problems are possible. Even in the cab of a combine, there is some level of dust (1 to 15 mg per cubic meter), and endotoxins (even with a sealed cab and proper air filtration) can reach limits that cause health issues and symptoms for some. At low levels that a healthy person might encounter during the harvest season, developing a cough might be common (intermittent with more phlegm when actual work exposure is happening). Other symptoms can include:

• chest tightness and/or wheezing

• slightly sore/irritated throat

• nasal and eye irritation

• a feeling of being stuffed up and congested all the time

Both chronic and acute bronchitis can also be common among those who handle lots of grain throughout the day as the main passages in the lungs get inflamed. Grain dust can also be a significant problem for those with asthma.

Exposure to higher concentrations
of grain dust

Higher concentrations of dust exposure like you might encounter behind a combine, in a bin, or while unloading or processing grain are a concern especially this year with moldy and low test weight grain that might be more dusty and prone to damage. Moldy, damaged, dusty grain can cause significant issues for people. For many individuals, a heavy dose of dust even for a short time period can result in symptoms that occur a few (2 to 6) hours after exposure and may particularly noticeable after they’ve gone home at night. These symptoms can include:

• Cough

• Chest tightness

• Malaise-general feeling of discomfort, illness or feeling “ill-at-ease”

• Headache

• Muscle Aches

• Fever

Specific reactions caused by a
“massive” exposure to moldygrain

Most people who have worked around grain will occasionally find themselves in a situation that is obviously very dusty. This “massive” exposure to a cloud of dust is something that should be avoided, though that is not always possible or practical. A massive exposure to moldy, dusty grain as well as other agricultural products (hay and silage in particular), even for a short period of time can result in two distinct medical conditions that look VERY similar and have the same cluster of symptoms outlined above (cough, chest tightness, etc.). 

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