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How to protect yourself from grain dust this fall

Iowa State University Extension
Even if you’ve never been bothered by farm dust in the past, you may need to take special precautions during this year’s harvest.

Even if you’ve never been bothered by farm dust in the past, you may need to take special precautions during this year’s harvest.

With wet summer conditions, it is anticipated that there will be more mold spores and toxins on plants. In addition, standing water or flash flooding may have deposited chemicals, raw sewage, silt or other bacteria on plants and topsoil. When fields are disturbed during harvest activities, this foreign matter is suspended on tiny dust particles and easily can enter the lungs and lead to respiratory problems.

Effects of dust

Dust in the lungs has both immediate and long-term effects. It can cause you additional physical stress, which results in fatigue or shortness of breath.

Long-term exposure to dust can be accompanied by congestion, coughing or wheezing, sensitivity to dust, and frequent respiratory infections such as colds, bronchitis and pneumonia. Over time, exposure to dust can result in serious respiratory illness, such as farmer's lung and other irreversible, incurable ailments.

In general, you are more susceptible to dust if you smoke, have a history of bronchitis, asthma or frequent (more than three per year) respiratory infections or flu-like illness. It’s difficult to determine how much, if any, additional protection you’ll need from dust during this year’s harvest. It depends on weather conditions during harvest, wind speed and direction, amount of flood debris and damage, and individual health considerations. Consult your doctor if you have questions.

Respirator masks come in a variety of styles for different jobs.

Respirator checklist

  • Always select a respirator that has been approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Choose a respirator tested for use in dust.
  • Look for its “protection factor,” or PF rating. For farming activities, use a respirator with a PF rating of 10 or above.
  • Select the proper kind of respirator. A two-strap paper dust mask will provide minimum protection. Respirators that use filters or cartridges to mechanically remove dust particles from the air afford more protection than disposable dust masks. Depending upon your sensitivity to dust and toxins, you may need a powered respirator that has its own air supply, such as an air helmet.
  • Make sure the respirator forms a good seal with your face. Eyeglasses, clothing, beards, or sideburns can interfere with the seal. Safety professionals can fit test respirators while you wear them.
  • Consider the cost and convenience of disposable versus non-disposable respirators.
  • Get a physician’s approval first. When air is drawn through a filtering mechanism, breathing becomes more difficult and can cause stress for people who have heart conditions or respiratory ailments.

You can buy respirators from mail-order catalogs, implement dealers or farm supply stores.