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Histoplasmosis and Threats from Bird Droppings

Bird Droppings

It is a silent and deadly disease. It is estimated that 80% of us have already been in contact with this disease and in the United States alone, 500,000 people will get it. Of those, 5,000 people will get sick enough to be hospitalized and 800 will die annually. How do you get this disease? You breathe.

It is called Histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is an infection caused by the Histoplasma fungus. The fungus is usually found in the soil that contains large amounts of bird droppings. It is sometimes called cave disease because it is also found where there are large amounts of bat droppings. People would go into caves where the bats live, inhale the fungus and get very sick. Most people who breathe the fungus do not get sick, but those who do will suffer from fever, cough and extreme fatigue. The very young, or the very old or people who have a weakened immune system are more likely to become so ill that they are hospitalized and some even die. In the United States areas around the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys are usually hot spots for Histoplasmosis as well as the central and eastern states. The fungus also lives in South America, Africa, Australia, and Central America.

Roosting sites for birds are the most obvious places of concern. But removing the roosting site is not enough to correct the issue. Tests have shown that there are seriously contaminated areas around sites where the roosting birds evacuated several years earlier. The problem is the soil under the roosts. It is enriched with the dropping for these birds, over and over again. It grows in the soil. If the roosts are disturbed, it releases spores into the air and people breathing become at risk. It may take up to three years for the amounts of spores and fungus to reach levels in the soil where it is released into the air. Soon 8 out of 10 people who just happen to be in the area are infected with this illness. Many strong and healthy people will show no symptoms and will get over it on their own. Those who do not get over it, get sick with flu like symptoms. This can escalate into life threatening lung infections.

During construction or demolition of a contaminated area, the disturbed spores can be carried through the air with the wind for many miles. So a person who has not even been near a roosting or former roosting site will inhale the potentially fatal spores. There have been at least three major outbreaks of Histoplasmosis that were contributed to the disturbances of sites due to construction in the United States since 1970. It should be noted that the birds are not sick. Fresh droppings form little threat. It is the fungus that grows in those droppings that cause a problem. However, bat droppings are a different story. Bats are not normally around construction sites. However, bat droppings, even fresh droppings will sometimes show the Histoplasma fungus. Therefore, it is not necessary for the bat droppings to be in the soil to spread the fungus. Further, the longer someone is exposed and breathes the spores, the more violently they become sick. This needs to be taken into consideration when determining how long a person will be working in a specific location. Any flock of trees, overpasses, towers or other common places birds roost should be assumed to be contaminated and handled cautiously.

If possible, areas that pose threat should be left alone. But sometimes that is not possible and removal of the bird droppings becomes necessary. Every caution should be used not to allow the spores to become airborne. Before any ground is shoveled, swept or disturbed, it must be sprayed with enough water to settle the dust. In extreme cases Formaldehyde solutions have been applied with success. However, Formaldehyde solutions pose threats of their own, so consult an expert.

Before beginning to clean up bird dropping, air vents should be covered. In some cases it may be necessary to shut down and cover heating and air conditioning systems. Every person in the area, especially those doing the work must wear quality respirators designed to block the smallest of particles. Protective clothes, shoes and gloves should be used. People in nearby areas should be warned in writing before you begin so they can be prepared even if they are not directly at the site. Removed materials should be sealed in plastic bags. While still wearing respirators, the protective gear should be removed and enclosed in the plastic bag and then sealed. Worker then needs to shower immediately if possible. If not, he should wash as completely as possible and shower at the first allowable moment. It is important to check with local government agencies about the correct and safest place to dispose of the bags. Rarely is it a good idea to throw the bags in a normal trash receptacle where they can become torn.

Knowledge of the situation is the key to control. Bird droppings can cause a serious health threat to a community. Experts are required before beginning construction on buildings, parks, or areas that have to be cleared. This is not only for the safety of the workers but also to the citizens that will be affected by the air quality created. The effort of prevention is much less costly than damage control after the fact and the price of not addressing this issue could be human life.

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