In the past week, it has emerged that five people – four in Lothian, one in Tayside – have fallen ill with legionella longbeachae, a form of Legionnaire’s disease linked to compost.
NHS Lothian revealed it was investigating four cases linked to gardening compost, with two patients being treated in intensive care and two others treated and released from hospital. A few days later, a fifth case was identified in Tayside, with the victim receiving treatment in hospital in Dundee.
Yesterday, Dobbies Garden Centres, which has 14 stores across Scotland, said it had updated advice to customers.
A spokeswoman said: “Dobbies is committed to offering our customers the best possible advice and we would recommend the public follow advice from the health board while doing any form of gardening. There are customer notices in all our garden centres displaying NHS advice on the recommended safe use of compost.”
A spokeswoman for Homebase stores said they were also monitoring the situation.
She said: “Our growing-media suppliers are members of the GMA [the Growing-Media Association] and are in direct contact with the investigations team in Scotland.
“The GMA have offered advice and support to the investigation into the recent incidents. We fully support the advice being given by the Horticultural Trades Association and bags of our own-brand growing-media carry on-pack advice to wear gloves when handling the product and wash hands after gardening activity.”
Scotland has seen 15 cases of legionella longbeachae since 2008. Symptoms include headaches, diarrhoea or a dry cough followed by pneumonia.
While most people recover after treatment with antibiotics, those with underlying medical problems are more vulnerable.
It is not known exactly how legionella longbeachae infection is passed from compost to people, but it is assumed to be through breathing in very small particles or very small drops of contaminated water.
Current advice from health protection experts to reduce the risk of legionella longbeachae while gardening includes following simple hygiene tips such as wearing gloves and a dust mask and washing hands afterwards.
They also advise storing compost and soil products away from the sun and opening bags carefully in a well-ventilated area, using a safety blade or sharp knife.
Gardeners are further advised to keep the door or a window open in greenhouses or sheds when potting plants or filling hanging baskets.
Dr Martin Donaghy, medical director at Health Protection Scotland, said: “While the risk of becoming unwell from gardening activities – such as working with compost – remains very low, we would recommend good hygiene in relation to gardening and, particularly, dealing with compost, potting mixes, mulches and soils.”