Facts about pigeon-related diseases
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) has developed this fact sheet to address common questions and concerns regarding pigeon-related diseases.
Pigeons are common to New York City. They often make nests in buildings and rapidly reproduce. Breeding occurs throughout the year, usually taking place between March and July. During these months, the DOHMH often receives questions about possible health risks associated with cleaning pigeon droppings. Contact with pigeon droppings may pose a small health risk. Three human diseases are known to be associated with pigeon droppings: histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and psittacosis.
Histoplasmosis is a disease caused by a fungus, which grows in pigeon droppings. It also grows in soils and is found throughout the world. When cleaning droppings a person may breathe in some of the fungus, which in cases of high exposure can cause infection. Common activities, such as cleaning off windowsills, will not result in high exposures.
Symptoms of histoplasmosis begin to appear about 10 days after initial infection and include fatigue, fever, and chest pains. Most people, however, do not show any symptoms. Those with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients or people living with HIV/AIDS are generally more at risk of developing histoplasmosis. The disease cannot be transmitted from person to person.
Cryptococcosis is another fungal disease associated with pigeon droppings and also grows in soils throughout the world. It is very unlikely that healthy people will become infected even at high levels of exposure. A major risk factor for infection is a compromised immune system. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 85 percent of cryptococcosis patients are HIV-positive.
Psittacosis (also known as ornithosis or parrot fever) is a rare infectious disease that mainly affects parrots and parrot-like birds such as cockatiels, and parakeets, but may also affect other birds, such as pigeons. When bird droppings dry and become airborne people may inhale them and get sick.
In humans, this bacterial disease is characterized by: fatigue, fever, headache, rash, chills, and sometimes pneumonia. Symptoms develop about 10 days after exposure. Psittacosis can be treated with a common antibiotic.
Since 1996, fewer than 50 confirmed cases were reported in the United States annually. In New York City, psittacosis is very rare with less than one human case identified each year. According to the CDC, about 70% of infected people had contact with infected pet birds. Those at greatest risk include bird owners, pet shop employees, veterinarians, and people with compromised immune systems. No person-to-person cases have ever been reported.
Cleaning Up Pigeon Droppings
Protecting the health of both workers who clean up pigeon droppings and the general public is important.
Routine cleaning of droppings (e.g. from windowsills) does not pose a serious health risk to most people. Some simple precautions can be taken to further reduce direct contact with droppings, such as wearing disposable gloves and clothes that can be washed.
Before any extensive clean-up measures are taken - e.g., removing accumulations inside an air shaft - workers should be informed of the possible health risks involved, particularly those with weakened immune systems. Even though histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and psittacosis pose minor public health threats, they can be further minimized if safety measures are taken. Wearing protective clothing like disposable coveralls, boots, gloves, and respirators can be used for protection.
If a high-powered water hose is used to strip off dried droppings, dust control measures such as containing the area with plastic sheeting, should be taken. Wetting down the work area will prevent inhalation, reduce the risk of infection and will also prevent the spread of dust outside the work area. Those with a compromised immune system such as people living with HIV/AIDS or cancer patients should not be directly involved in the removal of the droppings. Always wash hands and any exposed skin before eating or drinking and when finished with work.
Several alternatives to using a high-powered water hose exist. One such alternative includes soaking the droppings with water and then shoveling it. The wet material should be collected in heavy-duty plastic bags or another type of secure container and discarded with the regular trash.
Once the structures are cleaned they should be regularly washed to prevent further accumulation of droppings.
How can I find out more information on pigeon-related diseases?
For more information about the health effects of pigeon-related diseases, call your doctor. If you have any questions regarding the health effects of the removal of pigeon feces, you may contact National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at 1 (800) 35-NIOSH, or visit http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html.
More information on specific diseases can be found at the CDC website, http://www.cdc.gov. In addition, the NYC DOHMH Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Disease Epidemiology can be contacted by calling 311.