THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC gives Ontario grain farmers yet another reason to wear a respiratory mask this fall. Potential allergens such as weed pollen and mould spores, as well as bacteria and dust, are present throughout the year, but particularly so during harvest and loading and unloading grain.
This year, the usual suspects are joined by the potentially fatal and still uncontrolled COVID-19 virus, in almost every part of the globe. Research shows that covering your mouth and nose with a mask helps reduce your exposure to others, while simultaneously protecting them from your saliva and respiratory secretions.
And that’s an important defense against bacteria and mould spores that can cause everything from a runny nose and itchy eyes to serious inflammatory respiratory conditions.
“Some people consider masks an inconvenience or a fad,” says Rob Gobeil, agricultural health and safety specialist for the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association. “But my grandfather was what used to be called a ‘dirt farmer’ in Manitoba, and when it got dusty, he wore a bandana over his nose and mouth. Even in cowboy movies you see people wearing bandanas to stop inhaling dust. Protecting yourself from dust just makes sense.”
Indeed, it makes a lot more sense than leaving yourself open to developing hypersensitivity pneumonitis, widely known as Farmer’s Lung. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says this potentially debilitating disease, which begins when dust is inhaled on an ongoing basis, is now found in two to 10 per cent of all farm workers, depending on the region.
Symptoms start with a dry, irritating cough, and may progress to breathing problems, rapid heartbeat, fever and chills, and a general feeling of malaise. It’s sometimes mistaken for the flu. But it can turn into a chronic condition and cause permanent lung damage.
Despite warning and pleading with farmers, farm health and safety workers continually bump into farmers who believe they’re resilient enough to fight off respiratory disease. But while a research study from Europe showed farmers there have exceptional resilience — as much as 20 per cent greater immunity than the general population — the same study also showed as many as 30 per cent of farmers in the study had clear cut allergies.
No parallel study exists in North America; but Dr. Jill Poole, division chief of allergy and immunology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, believes similar figures prevail. Farmers are hardy — but their environment often exposes them to many potential allergens and other potential sources of respiratory illness.
Farmers need to protect themselves.
“When you sense dust in the air, you really need to be wearing your mask,” she says. “I’m hopeful that people are getting more comfortable wearing them, but my suspicion is that we still have a ways to go.” She recommends either the N95 mask or the half-face mask, depending on the situation.
Poole also urges farmers get a baseline pulmonary function test to show how well their lungs are working, which can help with respiratory disease diagnosis and treatment.
She and other experts, such as Cole Sanford, Ohio-based grain product specialist at New Holland and self-professed combine aficionado, say dust avoidance is key when possible. The machinery sector recognizes that imperative, and more and more, it’s designed equipment with operators’ health in mind.
Sanford points to tractor and combine cabs as an example. Besides being more comfortable and reducing noise, they also cut down on dirt ingress, through filtration. Manufacturers are making huge leaps in such filtration, initially driven by concerns over farmer health and then accelerated by competition between brands.
Sanford says the ongoing effectiveness of cab filters hinge on proper maintenance. To start with, he uses compressed air to blow out the cabs of his own machinery weekly. Then after cleaning his filters and running his machinery for a few days, he will wipe down the interior — floor, armrests, dashboard, wherever dust may gather — to see how effective the filter has been.
“You don’t know how dusty your cab is until you actually dust it,” he says. “Cab air filters are out of sight and out of mind, but if you want to keep your respiratory health, it’s a good idea to check that filter, maintain it according to your operator’s manual, and use genuine replacement parts. The likelihood of dirty air circulating in the cab is higher if the air filter is plugged.”
This year in particular he is urging operators of all machinery, trucks included, to limit exposure as much as possible to as many nasty air particles as they can — including the COVID-19 virus. That’s especially the case when making deliveries to service providers, such as elevators, where you are likely to encounter people outside your public health bubble. Risks are inherent in even seemingly innocent activities, such as having your truck window rolled down.
“That’s part of farming’s culture,” he says, “but especially this year, it’s better to change some habits and breathe clean air.”
Dust avoidance is not only for farmers’ sake, but for the health of others on the farm, too. Sanford urges farmers to realize not only when they are creating dust, but its likely destination as well.
“You may be clean, comfortable, and happy in your cab, but outside, you could be dusting people nearby,” he says. “Be cognizant of what’s going on around you and anticipate where your dust is going.”
Most industry experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic has helped move the needle on respiratory health awareness overall. Going forward, Sanford believes it will influence purchases. “With what’s happening in the news,” he says, “hands down, producer health will be a huge consideration for buying decisions in the future.”
Researcher Poole also recommends that farmers consider torquing up their immune systems. Enhanced immunity can help stave off a myriad of diseases. Boosting those defenses with 2,000 – 4,000 international units of Vitamin D daily helps give you a leg up against infection.
“Vitamin D boosts your immune system just a little,” says Poole, “and sometimes all we need is a little help.” •