Three brothers died this week while working in a manure pit at a farm in Ohio. Here's how this typical day on the farm quickly turned into a tragedy through bacterial forces and noxious gases — and how to prevent such tragedies from occurring.
Gary, Todd, and Brad Wuebker were reportedly found lying unconscious at the bottom of a manure pit by a rescue crew on Tuesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press. All three were taken to hospital but later died.
The chief culprits were found to be bacteria. Provided with the perfect setting, trillions of microorganisms created a deadly environment filled with a cocktail of harmful gases and drained of oxygen, which ultimately led to these preventable deaths.
Manure of any kind will be promptly decomposed by a host of microorganisms, especially anaerobic bacteria that produce gas including hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. These gases can be bad for human health in high concentrations (they are also responsible for the nasty smell), but they can also work to displace oxygen in a confined space.
Hydrogen sulfide is the biggest worry with manure pits, according to the National Ag Safety Database (NASD). Known for its pungent smell of rotten eggs, this gas is toxic and can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat in low doses, as well as headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and coughing at higher doses. Eventually, once enough hydrogen sulfide has been inhaled, it will paralyze the nerve cells in the nose and the person will no longer be able to smell the distinct pong of the gas, unaware they are still inhaling it. At high concentrations, it can kill a person in just a couple of breaths.
Hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide are also heavier than air. In a pit-like setting, it can sink to the bottom, build up, and result in a toxic oxygen-less bubble forming. The three men were reportedly working on a pump in the pit where this concoction of gases silently filled the surrounding air. It’s possible the manure was disturbed by their work, resulting in a sudden influx of noxious gasses into the air.
This kind of incident is rare, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented a handful of similar cases, some of which have killed multiple victims. They also note that this type of accident most often occurs in August when the warm weather fuels hungry bacteria and ups the risk of gas buildup.
The NASD advises no one should even enter a manure pit without a self-contained air supply, such as the ones used by firefighters, or a robust air quality test that ensures adequate oxygen is available. Ventilation of the pit using fans or pumps is also advised, and all people working within the manure pit should be rigged up to a safety line so they can be pulled to safety by others, should they suddenly fall unconscious.
“Always treat a pit as if it is a death trap,” NASD says on its website.