from "The Steel Toe", June 2000)
Midstate Central Labor Council
Just when you thought you knew all of the illnesses that can be caused
by construction work ... there is histoplasmosis! Those of us in the know
call it "histo," and you can too after you read this article.
Although this disease is usually associated with bird and bat droppings,
it actually is caused by a fungus. You can only get it by inhaling dust
from decayed droppings or contaminated soil. Any place where bird or bat
droppings have collected is a likely source of the "histo" fungus. Trades
most at risk are: bridge painters, demolition workers, heavy equipment
operators, heating and air-conditioning system installers or service people,
roofers, and tradespeople working on the restoration of historic or abandoned
can cause a lung infection that comes on quickly and causes fever, chills,
muscle aches, cough and shortness of breath.
Many people are exposed to histo repeatedly, get infected, but never know
it because they have no symptoms. You risk a more serious infection, however,
if you are exposed to larger amounts of the fungus, or if your immune
system is compromised for some reason. Histo can cause a lung infection
that comes on quickly and causes fever, chills, muscle aches, cough and
shortness of breath. Most of the time these symptoms clear up on their
own and are often mistaken for the flu. Some infections, though, may become
chronic with similar, but less severe, symptoms that may not go away for
several months. The most severe, and rarest, form of histo occurs when
the fungus spreads to organs throughout the body. Such infections can
cause permanent damage to the lungs and even death.
So if you experience flu-like symptoms as described above for more than
a few days it is important to seek medical attention, as effective treatment
is available. Tell your health care provider you may have been exposed
to fungus at your work. Otherwise he or she may not think of this possibility.
Prevention is best.
Controlling the risks workers in the trades face is not complicated but
care should be taken. Large scale infections have occurred where a large
amount of histo-contaminated soil or decayed droppings was disturbed.
The main thing to avoid is creating dust that will put the fungus in the
air where it can be inhaled.
So, if you don't
have to disturb soil rich in bird droppings, don't. Often, however, our
work requires that we do need to remove it. Wet sweeping or vacuuming
with a HEPA-filtered machine are the recommended ways to collect such
soil. Then it should be placed in heavy duty plastic bags, or other secure
containers for disposal.
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