Beware Bagpipe Lung

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It all started off quietly: I received an email from the medical correspondent at USA Today, seeking my response to an article in the medical journal Thorax (22.08.2016) about a previously unidentified condition labelled as Bagpipe Lung which described the case of a lifelong highland piper who developed an ultimately fatal inflammation of the lung caused by an immunological response to inhaled antigens, a number of which were identified as being present in his bagpipes. After reading through the research and consulting a couple of pipe makers, I sent off my reply:

“This type of story - infections from bagpipe bags - comes up from time to time, but this is the first report I have come across that identifies potential culprits. Here are my thoughts on the situation, although it must be emphasised that The Bagpipe Society does not claim great expertise in this area:

There are huge numbers of highland pipers in the world, many in organisations such as the military which may have noticed a correlated trend in lung disease over the last 150 years. I am not aware of any such being recorded. The blowpipe is fitted with a non-return valve which, although not perfect, should minimise back infection. Bagpipe bags are usually leather and therefore porous. This lets moisture out, so the bag will dry unless it is stored badly. Some modern bags are made of Gore-Tex and contain a moisture trap which is removed and emptied/dried after use, which helps further.

Most modern bagpipes are also treated with a seasoning which makes the bag airtight but also often contains an antifungal agent. I would expect the same basic hygiene rules to be applied to all wind instruments and as such, bagpipes are probably no different in infection risk. That being said, many of our UK members prefer bellows blown pipes - more hygienic, lower maintenance and possibly less physically demanding!”

Although I did not mention it then, I was also somewhat sceptical of the methodology: the research was based on one case study only and the only areas of the pipes to be tested were around the chanter stock and the air flowing through. The most glaring omission was a failure to test either the blowpipe or the valve!

All went quiet for a couple of days, then I was hit by the media: Daily Telegraph, Sky News, Talk FM. I spent an amusing day attempting to respond in a reasoned manner to increasingly obtuse lines of questioning, especially on the radio, which finally faded away as more important stories came along.

So, what is the outcome of all this? Firstly, the condition is already known to affect professional brass instrument players, but the mere attachment of the word bagpipe sparked off a huge response which is more related to how many in the media perceive bagpipes than the condition itself. Do a search on Bagpipe Lung and see how the world’s media has responded - the Daily Express Online is particularly lurid in its choice of photographs. This has caused unnecessary anxiety among some pipers.

Secondly and more importantly, it has got me thinking about what precautions we as pipers take to minimise infection. How often do we clean the blowpipes and valves? How airtight is the valve? Do we let the bag dry out fully before packing it away? Is it seasoned with an anti-microbial agent? What about second hand instruments? One thing is sure - the next time some stranger asks to have a go on my pipes, I will have a legitimate reason for saying no!

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