Keen gardener contracted fatal disease from potting mix

File photo / NZ Herald
File photo / NZ Herald

The family of a keen gardener who died after using potting mix hopes her death raises the dangers of using the potentially lethal soil.

Health officials also issued public safety warnings today on the importance of taking care when using potting mix and compost.

Margaret Joan Velenski, 63, died of bronchopneumonia on December 26, 2011.

In a finding released today, Coroner Richard McElrea found that Mrs Velenski enjoyed gardening and used potting mix as a part of her gardening activities daily.

On Friday, December 23, Mrs Velenski went to her general practitioner in Christchurch and was diagnosed with a lung infection, for which she was prescribed antibiotics.

However, by mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, she was still feeling unwell and went to bed.

Her daughter Tania Velenski knew that she was feeling ill, but today said her mum had "so made the effort" to be part of the festivities that day.

As she left that night, she said goodbye to her mum and said she'd speak on Boxing Day.

"She just said she needed a little rest. It was the last time I ever spoke to her,' said Ms Velenski, 43.

The following morning, Mrs Velenski was found to be dead with a towel next to her, apparently used for sweat absorption, the findings stated.

Attending ambulance staff pronounced her deceased.

A post-mortem examination by Dr Martin Sage confirmed Mrs Velenski's death was due to infection with Legionella longbeachae (Legionnaire's disease).

Dr Sage attributed the source of the infection to compost.

Mrs Velenski's husband Paul said today that more should have been done before now to highlight the dangers.

Potting mix bags needed more prominent warnings, larger lettering and made to stand out, he said.

"Who reads the warnings? It's got to stand out more, so more people know what they're getting in to."

He didn't know what brand she had most recently used, with dozens of bags from various retailers at their Hoon Hay home.

But they all had the same inadequate warnings, he said.

Ms Velenski said that although her mum, a member of the Canterbury Orchid Society, died nearly two years ago, "it still hurts".

And she wanted others to learn from her pain.

"If we can save one person then mum's death would've have been in vain," she said.

"I always wear gloves in the garden, but never thought of doing anything more when just working with a bit of dirt.

"It sounds silly putting a mask on, but it's just so important. You've definitely got to think twice and take all of the precautions."

Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Ramon Pink said that in the months of September through to the end of December, the Canterbury District Health Board characteristically noticed an increase in the number of Legionnaire's disease cases.

He urged gardeners need to take care when handling potting mix or compost this Labour Weekend.

"Enjoy your gardening by all means but please make sure you avoid inhaling the dust from potting mix or compost as this can be dangerous," he said.

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How to reduce the risk of developing Legionnaires' disease while handing potting mix or compost:

* Open potting mix bags carefully using scissors, rather than ripping the bags.

* Wear a disposable face mask and gloves and open the bag away from your face.

* Do your potting in a well ventilated area outside.

* Dampen down the potting mix or compost with a sprinkle of water to stop the bacteria from becoming airborne.

* Wash your hands thoroughly after handling potting mix and doing any gardening.

Source: Canterbury DHB

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LEGIONNAIRES' DISEASE SYMPTOMS:

* Legionnaires' disease usually develops two to 14 days after exposure to legionella bacteria.

* It frequently begins with headache, muscle pain, chills, or fever.

* After two or three days, other signs and symptoms may include a bloody or mucus cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, and confusion or other mental changes.

* Although it primarily affects the lungs, it can occasionally cause infections in wounds and in other parts of the body, including the heart.

Source: Mayo Clinic

- APNZ

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