Gypsum use ‘a deadly threat to farmers’

A toxic gas of the type that caused the death of Ulster Rugby star Nevin Spence poses a danger to Irish farmers who use gypsum for animal bedding, scientists have warned.

Gypsum, from waste plasterboard and other waste, is being stripped from ghost estates and construction sites and sold to Irish farmers, who may be unaware of its dangers, say scientists at the Institute of Technology in Carlow.

Calling for a nationwide ban on the product, two lecturers at the college’s department of science and health said commercial interests are promoting the sale of gypsum to farmers for use as animal bedding.

“The promotional literature and the companies concerned make no attempt to warn farmers of the dangers of using gypsum,” say microbiology lecturer Dr Gerard Murphy, and chemistry lecturer Dr Brian O’Rourke.

“Gypsum, when washed into slurry pits, will, over time, break down under the anaerobic conditions pertaining in the pit, thus releasing hydrogen sulphide [H2S].”

This is the gas that caused the deaths last September of the 22-year-old Ulster centre, his brother Graham, and father Noel, 52, in a farming tragedy which also injured their sister Emma and resulted from an attempt to rescue a dog from a slurry tank.

“H2S is an extremely toxic gas,” say the Carlow scientists. “At low levels, it is detected as a rotten egg-type smell and so is avoidable. At higher levels, however, it knocks out the nasal sensors and will kill instantly.

“Considering that there have been some very high-profile cases of deaths due to H2S poisoning from slurry pits in Northern Ireland recently, where we understand the use of gypsum for this purpose is now banned, it beggars belief that this material is now being sold to farmers in the Republic without any warning to farmers of its dangers.

“The use of gypsum for the bedding of animals is also banned in England and Scotland and it should be banned here. We hope it does not require further deaths for this to happen.”

A year ago, the Scottish Agricultural College issued a warning after four cattle belonging to a beef producer died when the toxic gas was released from plasterboard used to augment straw bedding.

A recent scientific trial in Britain concluded that gypsum produced the highest level of life-threatening hydrogen sulphide when compared to three other forms of bedding.


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