Until Covid came along, poor lung health had rather fallen down the list of ailments you might succumb to. It is forgotten that a hundred years ago pneumonia and Tb were bigger killers than heart disease or cancer.
Take a walk round any graveyard and it’s not long till you see the word ‘consumption’ writ large on old gravestones. Even the phrase ‘farmers lung’ doesn’t resonate today like it used to in the past. You could say that on the modern farm we all seem to breathe a little more easily.
Another big positive change has been the demise of smoking. Thankfully gone are the days when every sale-ring and pub were fogged with cigarette smoke. It wasn’t that long ago when it seemed to be very few farm jobs that couldn’t be undertaken without a fag on the go.
But this coronavirus, which has disrupted our lives so fundamentally over the past couple of years, has reminded us all that looking after our lungs should not be just a thing of the past. I say this in the knowledge that historically I’ve stupidly taken unnecessary risks by not wearing decent dust masks. Our grainstores used to have endless chains of machinery, which were almost designed to grind wheat and barley grains together then shoot them through the air so that it became filled with tiny particles too easily sucked into the respiratory tract.
Twenty-five years ago I had a bit of a damascene moment which inspired me to get rid of it all and make do with a simple ventilated flat floor. It made for a much healthier environment. What triggered this decision was an article by the late, great Peter Hepworth, who I had the privilege of sharing a column with in a farming magazine well before CPM was invented.
Peter was a hale and hearty no-nonsense Yorkshire farmer who sadly died too young of leukaemia. In his final article, written from a hospital bed, Peter wrote how the poor condition of his lungs due to too much time on cab-less combines was hastening his demise. I like to think it was Peter’s way of telling us not to be bloody stupid and to look after ourselves where we can. Today, more than ever, the chance of catching COVID is a chill reminder that looking after our lungs could be a life saver.
Harvest time in particular is when I remember Peter’s wise advice. Mercifully, today’s time spent in well insulated combine cabs isn’t the over exposed-nightmare the life of a combine driver used to be. As a small boy I was often given a ride on these machines as a ‘treat’. To this day I can remember the deafening roar and plumes of dust churned up by the ten-foot reel below. Today, thankfully, we work in well-designed cabs, where we breathe clean filtered air but, even so, I still find myself occasionally exposed to dust when doing jobs such as cleaning filters or the stone trap – not forgetting that old favourite, clearing a drum blockage.
So this year I’m investing in plenty of expensive dust masks that will be donned at all times where there is dust in the air. Seeing as I’ve spent much of the past year with a surgical face mask around my chops for fear there might be a virus in the air, it now seems only sensible to wear a decent mask when I know for fact that there are damaging dust particles in the air.
It’s all about looking after our lungs. They are too easily overlooked parts of the anatomy that we take for granted, but only until we struggle to partake in that most fundamental of body function –breathing.
Guy Smith grows 500ha of combinable crops on the north east Essex coast. @EssexPeasant