Inhalation of dust from contaminated organic materials may result in acute respiratory tract illness. Possible mechanisms include toxic and cellular reactions to microbial and other organic products or immunologic responses after prior sensitization to an antigen. A case is presented of a 52 year old male who developed fever, myalgia, and marked dyspnea 12 hr after shoveling composted wood chips and leaves. Inspiratory crackles, hypoxemia, and bilateral patchy pulmonary infiltrates were seen. Precipitating antibody tests for the usual antigens were inconclusive. He improved over 3 days. In order to assess the environmental conditions the patient had experienced, we returned to the site to reproduce and measure respiratory exposures during hand loading of the compost. Visible clouds of fine particulate were easily generated during handling activities. Microscopic examination of these dusts indicated a predominance of spores. Endotoxin concentrations from inspirable and respirable dust samples ranged from 636 to 16,300 endotoxin units/m3. Levels of contaminants found were consistent with those associated with respiratory illness in other agricultural settings. Two respiratory disorders, hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP) and organic dust toxic syndrome (ODTS), may occur after exposure to organic dusts containing fungal spores and endotoxins. Despite extensive clinical and environmental investigations, we were unable to differentiate these two disorders, and suggest they may represent parts of a spectrum of responses to complex organic dusts, rather than completely distinct clinical entities.
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