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Health Minister Bronwyn Pike has stepped in to warn Victorian gardeners about the little-known but potentially deadly risks associated with everyday potting mixes – following what is believed to be the first-ever suspected cases of potting mix-related death in the State last year.

Ms Pike said three Victorians died last year from Legionella longbeachae, a bacteria commonly found in potting mix. In at least two of the three cases, the victims had been exposed to potting mix before their deaths.

“To many gardeners, potting mix may seem harmless, but it can actually be very dangerous unless the correct procedures are followed,” Ms Pike said.

Legionella longbeachae is a form of Legionnaires’ disease. It is found in minute quantities in the general environment (including soil) and is not a health hazard. But the ingredients and moistness of potting mix make it the ideal breeding ground for the bacteria.

“In recent years, infections have been on the rise. During 2004 there were 27 cases of related illness, typically pneumonia, in Victoria. This figure includes the three deaths. Contact with potting mix was believed to be the cause of illness in many of the cases.”

Legionella longbeachae is different from Legionella pneumophila, the more well-known form of Legionnaires’ disease found in poorly maintained cooling towers and spas.

Ms Pike said gardeners using potting mix should always follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions on the bag. Tips to observe when using potting mix include:

Wear a particulate disposable mask to avoid breathing in dusts. These are available from large hardware stores;
Wear suitable eye protection such as good quality sunglasses, or goggles/safety glasses;
Do not shake the bag before opening it, as this will produce dust particles;
Moisten contents of bag by spraying lightly with water upon opening. Do this by making a small opening and insert a garden hose to dampen potting mix to avoid creating dust;
Always open potting mix bags at arms length in a well ventilated place with care to avoid breathing in airborne particles;
Store potting mix products in a cool dry location to limit growth of bacteria;
Clean up by sweeping whilst the product is damp to reduce dust; and
Wash hands on completion of use of potting mix and wash work clothes regularly.

Victoria’s Acting Chief Health Officer Dr John Carnie said the different types of legionella bacteria all cause a rare form of atypical pneumonia.
Early symptoms include fever, chills, headache, shortness of breath, sometimes dry cough, muscle aches and pain.

“Most people who breathe in the bacteria do not become ill. The risk of disease is increased with age, smoking, and in people with weakened immune systems,” Dr Carnie said.

Further information about Legionella, legal requirements and the analysis of samples can be obtained at www.health.vic.gov.au/ideas/downloads/leg_facts.pdf or www.legionella.vic.gov.au or by contacting the Legionella Program on 1800 248 898.


Media Release Attachment - 050123-pottingmix.doc [Word, 45568 Bytes]

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