Can Composting Make You Sick?

compost ingredient tips

Question: Can composting make you sick? What should I avoid adding to my compost bin? Can I put raw eggs in my compost? -Heidi R.

Answer: Though any serious health issues that could arise from composting can be avoided by practicing a handful of simple, common sense measures to minimize risks, there are sometimes fungal spores present in compost that can present health problems.

For young children, the elderly, pets, and those with compromised immune systems, the consequences of breathing in certain fungal spores can be a serious health risk, and can even lead to death. A widely-covered news story from 2008 reveals that a man in the UK died from complications resulting from breathing in Aspergillus fungal spores from a leaf mulch pile.

Fungal spores in your compost can be avoided easily, however, as it is usually caused by composting meat, dairy, bread, or cooked foods, none of which, aside from bread (the composting community is divided over differing opinions over whether or not bread should be used in composting) is a recommended item suited for composting.

Rarely an issue in small, home composting systems, health issues caused by composting are more pressing in large composting plants. Monitoring and providing a steady level of moisture and regularly turning or stirring the compost pile can go a long way towards preventing fungal spores in your compost, as well as weed seeds, and garden pests, as good moisture and proper air circulation helps to ensure that your compost pile will reach ideal temperatures of over 130 degrees F, which effectively kills any harmful materials in your pile.

Airborne fungal spores can also be contained by taking a few simple measures to keep them from taking to the air, such as adding water to your pile and only turning compost on days with mild winds.

Fungal spores are not the sole issue with compost and health concerns. A rare form of meningitis, known as Legionella longbeachae, is believed to be transferred by exposure to potting compost, though more research is needed to verify. Again, a properly maintained compost pile with the right mix of brown and green organic materials and a healthy balance of moisture and oxygen, is perfectly safe and family friendly, not to mention great for the environment. Occasionally, accidents can occur at composting facilities, namely compost fires, which can also be avoided with good pile maintenance practices.

Buffer zones between residential neighborhoods and large composting facilities are helpful in reducing the health risks as well. At home, wash your hands after working in your garden, especially after tending your compost, and be sure to avoid composting materials that are bad for your pile, especially those that can lead to mold issues. Gardeners who use potting soil and commercial compost in the garden, be sure to dampen the compost with water to avoid spreading or breathing in fungal spores that may be present in the soil or compost you are using.

Can I put raw eggs in my compost?

Eggs should be left out of compost, whether they are raw or cooked. They not only will attract pest animals, enticing rodents and the like to visit your compost area, they will also make the bin stink. Other items you should omit from composting materials include meat products, fish, dairy products, charcoal, coal ashes, diseased or infested plants, invasive weeds, black walnut plant debris, plants (including grass clippings) that have been treated with herbicide or weed killer, and poop from humans, dogs, cats, or other animals that eat meat.

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