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Methane Not Likely Cause of Va. Farm Tragedy

Family and worker more likely succumbed to other deadly hydrogen sulfide.

John Vogel, Editor, American Agriculturist

July 10, 2007

2 Min Read

Last week's farm accident near Bridgewater, Va., claimed the lives of Mennonite farmer Scott Showalter, his wife Phyllis, two of their four children and an employee. News headlines across the country claimed "Methane gas kills five".

But the details of the tragic event suggest that methane gas from the farm's manure pit probably wasn't the cause. But without an autopsy, the exact cause may never be known, says out Dennis Murphy, ag safety specialist at Penn State University.

Showalter was transferring manure from a pit under his dairy barn to a holding pond. This time, something had clogged the drain, and the Rockingham County farmer went in to unclog it. Authorities say he was quickly overcome.

Immediately, the employee went in to rescue him and also passed out. Another employee alerted Mrs. Showalter who rushed to the pit with daughters Shayla and Christina. All three fell victim to toxic gases.

The most likely killer was...

"They were moving manure, and that's when you get high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic manure gas," points out Murphy. "At low concentrations, it has a rotten egg smell – but not at high concentrations!"

At high levels, the gas will paralyze the sense of smell, according to a Center for Disease Control report from the National Ag Safety Database. A Cornell safety fact sheet updated this winter confirmed that high concentrations – 800 parts per million or higher of hydrogen sulfide can cause rapid loss of consciousness, diaphragm paralysis at first breath and asphyxiation.

Safety advice

Any time you work with a manure pit, there's a high degree of danger, warns Murphy. "They're more deadly than you realize." Here are a few of his suggestions:

Always assume hydrogen sulfide is present. It's heavier than air and hangs in low-lying, unventilated areas. Because of that, levels may remain high in some confined places even with ventilation.

Provide extra ventilation during agitation and before going into any pit.

Never enter a pit without precautions and a backup emergency plan. That plan should include a trained co-worker stationed outside the pit in case of emergency.

As cumbersome as it might be, wear a safety harness or belt with a lifeline secured outside the storage area. Be sure the trained back-up person can life the person inside to safety with a winch or pulley if necessary.

You'll find much manure storage safety information on the Web. Here are two sites to start with:

Manure storage poses invisible risks: www.phppo.cdc.gov/nasd/docs.  

Hydrogen sulfide in manure handling systems: www.manuremanagement.cornell.edu.

About the Author(s)

John Vogel

Editor, American Agriculturist

For more than 38 years, John Vogel has been a Farm Progress editor writing for farmers from the Dakota prairies to the Eastern shores. Since 1985, he's been the editor of American Agriculturist – successor of three other Northeast magazines.

Raised on a grain and beef farm, he double-majored in Animal Science and Ag Journalism at Iowa State. His passion for helping farmers and farm management skills led to his family farm's first 209-bushel corn yield average in 1989.

John's personal and professional missions are an integral part of American Agriculturist's mission: To anticipate and explore tomorrow's farming needs and encourage positive change to keep family, profit and pride in farming.

John co-founded Pennsylvania Farm Link, a non-profit dedicated to helping young farmers start farming. It was responsible for creating three innovative state-supported low-interest loan programs and two "Farms for the Future" conferences.

His publications have received countless awards, including the 2000 Folio "Gold Award" for editorial excellence, the 2001 and 2008 National Association of Ag Journalists' Mackiewicz Award, several American Agricultural Editors' "Oscars" plus many ag media awards from the New York State Agricultural Society.

Vogel is a three-time winner of the Northeast Farm Communicators' Farm Communicator of the Year award. He's a National 4-H Foundation Distinguished Alumni and an honorary member of Alpha Zeta, and board member of Christian Farmers Outreach.

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