Cocci, a fungus that lives in the top layers of arid soil, is responsible for a serious respiratory illness known as Valley Fever. Humans contract the disease when disturbing soil in dry areas causes the mold to release its spores. According to Discover, due to the nature of their work, archaeologists are often susceptible to valley fever:
In fact, cocci is a full-blown occupational hazards for those Indiana Jones-types “probing, scraping, excavat[ing], and screening” artifacts and otherwise tooling around in the fungi-laden desert soil of the southwestern United States. The “sandy soil texture, alkalinity, and organic and inorganic elements resulting from the accumulation of human refuse” within these very same prehistoric sites create a set of conditions perfect for the proliferation and growth of cocci mold.
Several cases of valley fever in the US that have been specifically associated with archaeological digs arise from the excavation of prehistoric Indian sites and burial grounds. In the summer of 1970, 105 students from three California University archaeology programs were infected one summer as they excavated prehistoric middens, areas of known human waste and refuse; this was out of a total number of 150 students, representing a staggering 70% attack rate. Two years later, 39 archaeology students affiliated with a summer program at California State University at Sacramento were infected as they excavated the ancient ruins of the Yana people in Red Bluff, CA. In 2001, ten individuals from an 18-person team of students and archaeologists working at Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah had to seek medical treatment for severe respiratory symptoms and a pneumonia-like illness caused by cocci infection.
In addition to archaeologists, other professions that would be at risk would be farm laborers and construction professionals. Also, in June of this year, a federal judge ordered 3,000 inmates at two prisons to be relocated due to significant numbers of valley fever infections resulting in 40 deaths.
The best part: dust masks don’t prevent infection. The US Geological Society has a PDF document that addresses the associated risks: Operational Guidelines for Geological Fieldwork in Areas Endemic for Coccidioidomycosis.
via Discover and BoingBoing