Pennsylvania’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office is warning farmers to take extra precaution when agitating manure storage pits after an incident on a Montour County farm that nearly cost the lives of two boys, ages 4 and 2.
“We want farmers to err on the side of caution at this point,” said Denise Coleman, NRCS state conservationist, who added that farmers should pay especially close attention if they use gypsum for cow bedding.
Hosea Latshaw, state conservation engineer, said signs are pointing to an unusually high level of hydrogen sulfide emanating from the pit at Dennis Beachel’s farm, possibly coming from gypsum being used as bedding for his cows. Beachel is the boys’ father.
“I think that’s a really good start on starting to do some scientific study on this,” Latshaw said. “Again, it’s another puzzle piece that shows that gypsum can lead to excessive hydrogen sulfide production.”
The NRCS national website put out a manure storage advisory, which specifically mentions gypsum as a possible cause of higher than normal hydrogen sulfide levels at the Beachel farm.
Latshaw said other documented and undocumented incidents of gas asphyxiation on farms, including a tragic incident that killed three members of a Lancaster County family on a farm in Maryland in May, may also be connected with gypsum possibly being used on those farms as bed d
“I think people need to know, we’ve packed together a couple of strange circumstances, unrelated, that they seem to be related. Gypsum seems to be a common thread here,” he said.
The accident happened Sept. 17 after Beachel, who runs a 250-head dairy farm, started agitating his 124-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep, 1.2 million-gallon concrete manure pit.
Within a few minutes, Beachel said, he found his boys, who were playing within a few feet of the manure storage, face up and unconscious.
The boys were taken to a local hospital where they later regained consciousness, although the younger boy had to stay overnight for observation.
Davis Hill, program director for managing agricultural emergencies at Penn State, said elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide were measured days after the accident happened.
Using a gas detection meter, Hill measured the amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air on Sept. 19 and found levels between 15 and 75 parts per million, the latter of which is three times the limit recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for exposure to people (20 parts per million is the OSHA recommended limit, with a maximum of 50 parts per million for up to 10 minutes).
Hill said he measured these high readings up to 25 feet away from the structure.
“I found some rather, what I would call, significant levels of that gas around the storage,” Hill said, adding that levels for other types of gases were not elevated.
“Hydrogen sulfide was the big one. That really surprised me,” he said. “I was pretty impressed by that number, that far away. That’s the highest I’ve seen on my experience dealing with this in an outside structure.”
He performed a similar gas test at a farm nearby that did not use gypsum, whose manure storage had just been agitated. After waiting 10 minutes, Hill said he measured levels of hydrogen sulfide inside the pit at around 15 parts per million, which he said is quite normal.
Outside the pit, hydrogen sulfide levels were measured at around 6 parts per million. Hill said there was a light wind blowing at the time.
In a news release sent out Wednesday, Hill also warned against other gases that could be present during agitation, including carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane.
Beachel said he uses gypsum to provide a cleaner bedding material for his cows.
He said somatic cell counts have decreased as a result of using gypsum (they range between 80,000 and 120,000) in the free stalls and that it’s earned him considerable bonuses on his milk check.
“The gypsum basically pays for itself in that manner in bonuses,” Beachel said.
Other things get into the pit too. Beachel said formaldehyde, which he uses as a foot bath to prevent hairy heel warts in his cows, gets in the pit. Silage leachate is also fed into the pit through a small pipe on the side of the structure.
Beachel said at least 45 gallons of chemicals go into the manure pit each month.
Still, he doesn’t want to take chances that a member of his family will get hurt again.
Along with keeping his boys away from the manure pit, he said he’s now considering switching to sawdust for bedding.
“I really like gypsum, though I’m not going to live with this worry,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. As far as keeping the children away, that’s a definite.”
Gypsum recyclers, of which there are at least two in Lancaster County, must get a special permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to do business in the state.
Amanda Witman, DEP spokesperson, said there are a total of 14 permitted gypsum recyclers in the state.
Terry Weaver of USA Gypsum in Reinholds, Pa., Beachel’s gypsum supplier and a former farmer himself, said hydrogen sulfide has always been an issue in liquid manure and that many factors, including milk production, can contribute to various levels of the gas being present.
His company provides gypsum to at least 300 farms in the region.
Even though various people investigating the incident are pointing to hydrogen sulfide as the main issue at the Beachel farm, Weaver said nothing conclusive has been determined and the idea that gypsum is the main cause of elevated levels of the gas is speculation.
“Somebody needs to study it to determine if or what contribution that could have had,” Weaver said. “I think pointing the finger at gypsum is premature.”
Latshaw said farmers should always use caution when they start agitating a manure pit.
Using a face mask, putting up warning signs, providing instructions for people who can’t read and agitating under the right conditions — windy conditions, he said, are best — are some things producers can do.
Hill went further, suggesting a buffer zone of at least 20 feet during agitation and removing animals from housing when agitating covered manure storages under housing units.