Grain Dust and Your Health in the Harvest Season

On Monday, September 17,  I had the opportunity to be live on the Farm Report with Pam Jahnke to kick off National Farm Safety Week.  One of the topics discussed was A color photo showing corn issues for everyone working with the drought impacted crops.

For individuals working with grain, it is important to understand the potential health concerns that can be associated with grain dusts. Grain dust can be a mixture of particles of grain, soil, plant material, fungi, bacteria, residues of agricultural chemicals and the excreta of insects, rodents and birds. The mixture varies with the type of grain, growing conditions and how it was harvested, stored and processed. Spoiled grain is especially contaminated with dust and bacteria.

These dusts can affect the respiratory tract in a variety of ways (see table below) and can cause gastrointestinal problems, skin rashes and eye irritations. Individuals may react quite differently to the same dust. Each person’s work history, health status and smoking history is unique. Thus, some people may be quite sensitive to the dust while others may be able to withstand several exposures prior to becoming sensitized.

Respiratory Problems Caused by Grain Dusts

Respiratory Disease Symptoms Comments
Inflammation of air passages

  • upper airways
  • acute bronchitis
stuffy nose, runny nose, sore throatcough, spitting up phlegm,labored breathing These common reactions are bothersome but cause no permanent damage.
Asthma (often called grain asthma or barn allergy) wheezing,labored breathing,cough Asthma may be an immediate response to grain dust, may be delayed for several hours or may recur successive nights following exposure.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

  • chronic bronchitis
  • airway obstruction
recurring cough, phlegm production for two or more years, labored breathing, wheezing Prolonged exposure to grain dust can lead to permanent lung damage. Cigarette smokers experience these same symptoms. And cigarette smoking grain handlers often get these respiratory symptoms sooner, or at a younger age, than nonsmoking grain handlers.
Toxic Organic Dust Syndrome (TODS) (sometimes called grain fever) flu-like symptoms including chills, flushed face, muscle pain, general bodily discomfort TODS follows heavy exposure to grain dusts. Symptoms occur for new workers 4 to 6 hours after exposure. can occur in other employees after temporary removal (such as on a Monday following a weekend at home). TODS also can occur among farmers after exposure to confinement house dusts and moldy hay.
Farmers Lung flu-like symptoms including cough, fever & chills, labored breathing, muscle pain, general discomfort Caused by dusts from moldy hay, silage and grain. Symptoms start 4 to 8 hours after exposure. Even small amounts of dusts can cause illness after a person has become sensitized. Can cause permanent lung damage and death.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE

To help reduce and prevent allergic reactions, a person should wear adequate protective devices or PPE, such as dust masks or helmets, and provide ventilation to remove the dusts.  Each individual situation should be evaluated for the proper PPE.   Grain dusts require different respirators than those used with silo gas.

For further information, see Human Health Concerns from Grain Dusts and Molds During Harvest



Chart of Respiratory Problems Caused by Grain Dusts was  adapted from “Safe Measures in Storing and Handling Grain”. Kramer, John. Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service. Available at . Accessed August 24, 2007.‎

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