Switchgrass, can keep our cattle fed and our homes warm, and is a potential source of biomass for biofuel and bioproducts, but is there a downside? Unfortunately, yes, improperly storing and handling of switchgrass can lead to severe health problems.
Chuck Schwab, CenUSA Bioenergy Co-Project Director for health and safety, explained that switchgrass, if harvested too wet or if stored in a damp location can grow mold, which can become airborne and can cause respiratory problems for workers processing switchgrass. Two of the most prevalent mold-related diseases are; Farmer’s Lung and Toxic Organic Dust Syndrome (TODS).
According to the USDA, Farmer’s Lung is a hypersensitive-pneumonitis. Farmer’s Lung begins with flu-like symptoms, making it hard to identify, but it can progress to chronic and more severe symptoms if a person is repeatedly exposed to dusts and airborne molds. The USDA defines TODS as a flu-like disease. It is easier to diagnose because the symptoms including; dry cough, irritated skin, chills, high fever, and headaches appear within a few hours of exposure. Not all symptoms are present in every case.
Anyone who works with switchgrass is at risk of diseases caused by dust and mold. However, those with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, are at greater risk e for short or long term health problems.
So, what can be done? According to Schwab there are three routes to consider; eliminate the hazard, provide separation, and use personal protective equipment. Eliminating the hazard, dust, all together would be fairly challenging. Fortunately, for switchgrass producers the other two options are very manageable. Providing separation simply refers to not working with switchgrass for extended periods of time, especially if working indoors.
Personal protective equipment comes in a variety of forms, all of which serve their unique purpose. A paper, two-strap painter’s mask, is great for short jobs or one-time jobs. It is important to use masks that have two straps because one strap does not create an adequate seal. For men, keeping a clean shaven face reduces risk. Facial hair can break the seal and prevent the mask from keeping dust out.
For more frequent use, the next step up would be rubber-fitted masks with canisters or air-supplying helmets. These are reusable and work well for people that are working in dusty conditions frequently. They have a better seal and are more effective than paper masks and are better for people with pre-existing conditions.
Regardless of what type of mask is worn, it is still important for people to take a break from being around dust. This is due to the fact that lungs need to work harder to bring air in through a mask putting extra strain on the body, and making it more susceptible to short-term respiratory problems.