When Jeremey Mitchell’s 10-year-old daughter, Erica, asked her daddy if they could plant flowers together, of course he said yes.
Days later, reports Australia’s 9News, Mitchell started feeling under the weather, and it was more than any physical strain gardening could’ve imposed. Mitchell came down with a fever, which he chalked up to having a bout of the flu.
From there, the 46-year-old’s symptoms got worse. At the insistence of his wife, Mitchell went to the emergency room, where the severity of his condition became clear. As he recounted to 9News:
“The next thing I knew I was in intensive care, with 10 percent lung capacity and they said look we’re going to need to put you in a deep sleep, we’re going to have to put a tube down your throat and make you breathe.”
Mitchell was told he would be asleep for a few days. The days turned into a week.
“I was supposed to be only under for two days and when I woke up, I realized it had been seven days.”
When Mitchell awoke, he was informed that he didn’t have the flu. Mitchell had contracted Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory disease that can cause a serious type of pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria that causes the disease is naturally present in freshwater but becomes harmful when it grows in man-made water systems.
For Mitchell, however, the source of his Legionella infection wasn’t from any nearby bodies of water. As 9News reports, microbiologists traced the bacteria to the bag of soil Mitchell had used while planting flowers with his daughter.
Mitchell was shocked to learn he contracted the potentially deadly infection from a bag of potting soil, as he told 9News:
“I knew Legionnaires’ was from air conditioning, but never ever knew you could get it from potting mix.”
Legionnaire’s disease is reportedly not specific to the brand of potting soil Mitchell purchased; it can be found in any bag of the mixture.
According to the CDC, Legionnaires’ disease is spread through the inhalation of water droplets containing the bacteria. Dr. Bernie Hudson, a microbiologist and infectious diseases physician at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, told 9News how the disease can be contracted similarly through potting soil:
“People should realize that they form a real like aerosol or even mist and if it’s a bit wet, it’s easy for them to inhale it and if they inhale it, it gets into their lungs.
I wouldn’t handle potting mix without wearing a mask and gloves.”
In the U.S., a type of bacteria causing Legionnaires’ disease, Legionella longbeachae, found in potting soil, has been associated with reported cases of the illness in California, Oregon, and Washington state, according to the CDC.
The National Gardening Association recommends wearing gloves while handling soil or compost and wetting mixtures down to reduce airborne particles. Gardeners are also advised to wear masks while using potting soil mixes. Do not store bags of potting mix in sunlight, as the temperature can increase bacterial growth. Always wash hands after handling potting soil and stay aware of symptoms of Legionnaires’, which includes shortness of breath, achy muscles, fever, and chills.
People 50 and older, who have chronic lung disease, weakened immune systems, who are current or former smokers, or have other chronic conditions are more at risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease, reports the CDC.
As for Mitchell, he is thankful for his recovery and for the many days he’ll be able to spend with his daughter. As he told 9News: “Luckily enough for me, I’m going to make a full recovery, but there’s a lot of people that don’t have that luck and this disease gets the best of them.”