Glasgow & West Scotland

Widow's plea over Legionnaire's warning on compost bags

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Media captionMargaret Murphy said stronger warning labels could avoid more cases of the infection

The widow of the first Scot to contract Legionnaire's disease from compost has made an emotional plea for stronger warning labels on bags.

Margaret Murphy's husband Andrew died in 2014 from leukaemia. His immune system was left badly weakened after he got Legionnaire's from compost in 2008.

She said stronger warning labels could avoid more cases of the infection.

The Scottish government said current evidence suggested labelling had no impact on the number of cases.

The Growing Media Association, which represents compost manufacturers, said the risk of infection remained very low.

Between 2008 and 2013, 16 people in Scotland contracted Legionnaire's disease from compost. Two of them died.

Andrew Murphy, from Lanarkshire, was the very first Scot to contract the infection in 2008.

He was not a regular gardener, but purchased a bag of compost to try his hand at growing tomatoes.

Image caption Andrew Murphy contracted Legionnaires Disease after planting tomatoes

He planted them in his conservatory, with his four-year-old granddaughter nearby. A couple of days later, he was admitted to hospital.

Speaking for the first time, his wife Margaret said that when laboratory tests confirmed he had contracted Legionnaire's disease from the compost, she could not believe it.

"I was in shock. I thought, I'm dreaming this. I just couldn't take it in," she said.

Mr Murphy spent 50 days in intensive care. Although he survived the initial infection, his immune system was damaged. He died last October from leukaemia.

"We have to have warning labels," Mrs Murphy said. "Nursery school children are using compost to plant sunflowers.

"I would not want another family to have to go through what we've gone through. It doesn't cost a lot of money but nobody's listening. That just upsets me."

The manufacturer of the compost paid Mr Murphy compensation in an out-of-court settlement but Mrs Murphy described the sum as "paltry".

Image caption Cases of compost-linked Legionella have been rising in Scotland

She said it did not even cover her lost income as a result of having to give up work to nurse her husband.

Cases of the particular strain of Legionella associated with compost, Legionella longbeachae, have been rising in Scotland.

There is no clear explanation for this, but it is thought it may be due to the replacement of peat with more environmentally friendly ingredients such as sawdust and bark.

Legionella longbeachae is common in Australia and New Zealand, where compost bags have carried specific warnings about the danger of infection since 2003.

There is no clear explanation why there have been more cases in Scotland than the rest of the UK, but health experts believe it may simply be because labs in Scotland are more alert to the danger and therefore detect it more often.

In 2013 a Strathclyde University study into 22 different compost brands sold in the UK found that 14 of them contained a variety of Legionella species. Four contained Legionella longbeachae.

Last year, a report by Health Protection Scotland recommended that bags should warn gardeners to wear a mask if the compost is dusty, since infection can occur when spores are inhaled. However, manufacturers said such warnings were alarmist.

'Use gloves'

In a statement, the Growing Media Association (GMA) said it took the issue "very seriously".

"The GMA would like to reassure garden centres and their customers that the risk of infection remains extremely low," it said.

"This was confirmed by a recent report by Health Protection Scotland which recorded less than one case per million population between 2008-2012.

"Compared with the number of gardeners in Scotland and the volume of growing media used, the HPS report concludes that the risks of severe disease are very low."

Most compost bags currently warn customers to use gloves and wash their hands after use.

The Scottish government does not have the power to force manufacturers to change their labels, but Health Protection Scotland recommended that it "explore with its relevant UK counterparts how best to secure agreement with manufacturers and/or retailers".

Public Health Minister Maureen Watt said: "The Scottish government has enormous sympathy for the family of Mr Murphy, and all of the other families affected by Legionnaire's Disease.

"We have carefully considered the available international evidence, which suggests that labelling does not have an impact on the number of cases. However, we will keep this issue under review.

"We welcome the advice and recommendations of Health Protection Scotland. We would encourage anyone using compost to wear gloves, use a mask if dusty and wash their hands thoroughly afterwards."

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