Gardeners warned after Legionnaires’ disease linked to potting mix

Gardeners have been issued with an urgent warning after a Sydney woman died of Legionnaires’ disease after using potting mix.

The woman, aged in her 60s, is believed to have breathed in the bacteria while gardening, and later fell ill with a lung infection. She was taken to hospital but died.

Health experts are urging gardeners to take the warning on bags of potting mix seriously. All potting mixes carry warnings about wearing gloves and face masks when handling.

Legionella longbeachae bacteria is often found in potting mix and can cause a lung infection if someone inhales dust from contaminated soil,” NSW Health said in a statement.

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NSW Health executive director Dr Jeremy McAnulty says gardeners can take simple precautions to ensure they are safe when gardening.

“Put on a face mask and wear gardening gloves before you open the bag of potting mix and handle the contents,” Dr McAnulty says.

“Most people who breathe in the bacteria don’t become ill, but the risk of infection increases if you’re older, a smoker, or have a weakened immune system.

“Wetting the potting mix first also helps prevent any contaminated potting mix dust blowing up into the air and being inhaled.

“Even if you’ve been wearing gloves, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap before eating or drinking as the bacteria could still be there.”

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Gardeners should also store any bags in well ventilated spaces, open bags slowly, direct the opening away from the face, water plants and composts gently with a low-pressure hose and avoid breathing in droplets of water from dripping hanging baskets.

The bacteria can remain on hands contaminated by potting mix for up to one hour.

As well as potting mixes and composts and related products, the bacteria is also found in soil conditioners.

According to the Health Direct website, Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria. There are two main types – legionella pneumophila is caused by contact with contaminated water and legionella longbeachae is found in soil.

Legionella pneumophila is often found in warm water environments such as air conditioning cooling towers in large buildings, evaporative coolers, showers and hot water systems, spas and water fountains.

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Legionnaires’ disease is found in tiny quantities in the general environment and is not normally a health hazard, but the ingredients and dampness of potting mixes make it the ideal breeding ground for the bacteria. It is not usually spread person-to-person.

The symptoms include fever, fatigue, chills, dry cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. Symptoms can take up to 10 days to develop. Most infections occur in those who are middle aged or older.

The condition was named after an incident in 1976 when there was an outbreak of pneumonia during a convention of the American Legion – a non-profit organisation of US war veterans – in Philadelphia. Of the 182 reported cases, 29 died and eventually a previously unknown strain of pneumonia was identified as being responsible. After it was identified, unexplained outbreaks of respiratory disease were retrospectively attributed to the disease as far back as the 1950s.

Do you take special precautions when using a potting mix or compost? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


  1. This would have to be the stalest news ever on YLC.

    The dangers of potting mix were identified at least 40 odd years ago. I can remember quite clearly in the 1980s when we were alerted to this after people started getting very sick. It is regularly mentioned but seems people don’t listen.

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