Monday, August 15, 2011

Prison guard killed by inhaling fumes from droppings of prisoners pet pigeons

Large populations of roosting birds may present a disease risk. The most serious health risks arise from disease organisms that grow in the nutrient-rich accumulations of bird droppings, feathers and debris under a roost — particularly if roosts have been active for years. In addition, insects that live on birds or their droppings may become a problem when the infested birds leave roosts or nests. These insects can invade buildings and bite or irritate people. When I was first diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis whether I had been exposed to birds as a hobby or at work was one of the first questions asked.

A retired prison officer has died after contracting a lung disease from tame pigeons fed by inmates at the jail where he worked.

Steve Burks, 54, was claiming damages from the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice but died from the disease, caused by inhaling fumes from pigeons’ droppings, before his case was settled. (The Daily Mail reported earlier that Britain had the highest lung disease death rate in Europe).

Now the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) is helping Mr Burks’s widow Lynda pursue her husband’s claim as well as demanding jails bring in new safety procedures.

Mr Burks, from Southampton, was awaiting a lung transplant but died in April from extrinsic allergic alveolitis, commonly known as ‘bird fancier’s lung’.

An inquest ruled this month that the disease was caused by his exposure to pigeon waste during his job. (

Two months before his death, Mr Burks – who was forced to retire early on medical grounds from his job at Winchester Prison – described how he had suffered because of ‘an invisible, life-threatening hazard'.

Writing in his union’s journal, Mr Burks told how he had to use an oxygen supply, could hardly walk because he was so breathless and was forced to take 12 tablets a day.

Mr Burks, who had never bred or raised pigeons, urged colleagues to wear safety gloves or a mask after claiming his own prison managers had failed to give him proper advice.

He said: ‘My lungs are inflamed and covered in shadows. My oxygen levels are so low that I require oxygen 20 hours a day.

My quality of life is zero. I can’t walk very far without getting breathless. I struggle to get dressed and get in and out of the bath. The stairs are an absolute killer to climb.

‘Don’t let management fob you off saying there is no risk from these flying pests, because clearly there is.’

His widow Lynda said: ‘I am very bitter and angry over what happened. He was suing the Ministry of Justice and he felt so angry and this has completely devastated me.’

Brian Traynor, the POA’s national executive member for health and safety, said: ‘The way the Ministry of Justice treated a life-threatening pigeon disease being suffered by Steve was despicable.

It is very possible other officers have died from the same disease without it being realised. It could be like the asbestos issue. We want action to prevent it happening again.’

Mr Traynor said that because prisoners coaxed pigeons to their cell windows and treated them as pets, they also risked contracting the disease.

He added: ‘Once you have prisons, you have pigeons. We have a major problem in all our establishments.’

He suggested using decoy owls to scare pigeons away or putting spikes on window sills.

Professor Stephen Spiro, deputy chairman of the British Lung Foundation, urged prisoners not to feed pigeons. He said: ‘If they are fed, they will come in numbers.’

He warned that people feeding pigeons in places such as Trafalgar Square are also at risk.

A spokesman at the Ministry of Justice said: ‘We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings. We take the health and welfare of staff and prisoners very seriously.

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