Ghost Hunting – Health and Safety Issues

Note: I’d prepared this article for the first week of December 2012.  When — on 28 Nov 2012 — I heard about the death of ghost researcher Sara Harris, I decided to publish it early.

Updating this article in 2016, I’ve changed some of the preface, below. I have no idea what happened to Shane Harris and his foundation.

It sounded like Shane Harris and his wife, Sara, were among yet another team of ghost hunters to explore a derelict home with ghost stories. Plenty of people had investigated the site — including its basement — in the past.

However, Sara returned home with a lung problem, later diagnosed as something she’d contracted at the haunted site. It had dust, dirt, and rodent droppings. That’s not unusual in abandoned haunted buildings.

Sara’s health declined, rapidly, and she died within days. That was a shock for many of us.

Her story wasn’t the first I’ve heard about ghost researchers contracting respiratory infections after investigations, but it is among the worst.

Her widower, Shane Harris, started the Sara Harris Foundation.

At the time, Shane said it would help to educate paranormal investigators about issues of health and safety, and provide masks and first aid kits to ghost hunting teams that can’t afford them.  He said, “I have 3M on board to donate masks as soon as I get the tax ID number,” and it looked like Ryan Buell was working with him to raise funds.

As of 2016, I find no evidence of Shane’s foundation.

But, respiratory risks are real at some abandoned, derelict, and rodent-infested sites.

In addition, a follow-up article at Paranormal Insider included even more reasons for concern among ghost hunters.

My article barely brushes the surface of the problem, but — in the interest of getting this information to more people, immediately — I’ve decided to publish it early.

Among ghost hunters, I’ve heard some really scary stories.  They’re not about the ghosts.  They’re about health and safety issues.

This is especially important during the winter, when we’re often investigating indoor locations.  Energy-saving measures — such as doors and windows with weatherstripping, and storm doors and windows — mean less air circulation.  The air isn’t as healthy, especially when someone has “indoor allergies” or environmental sensitivities.

  • Many researchers don’t take allergy medications before an investigation, especially if those medications might affect their alertness.  That can put them more at risk for respiratory distress.
  • Sometimes, a client blames physical phenomena — like dizziness or depression in just one part of the home or business — on ghosts when the actual issue is something environmental, like allergies, off-gassing from new wall-t0-wall carpeting, or oil-based wall paint with high VOCs.  That’s going to affect some investigators on the scene, as well.
  • Are you or team members allergic to pets?  Ask the site owner if he or she has animals in the home or business.  Since people often isolate their pets before an investigation team arrives, it’s a mistake to assume that there are no pets, just because you don’t see or hear them.

Allergies are the tip of the iceberg.

Basements and attics often present safety issues. In at least one case this year, an otherwise healthy investigator was hospitalized with a life-threatening respiratory complaint, after conducting research at a site with rodent droppings.

  • Structural issues – Attic floorboards can be old and unable to support much weight.  Ask the owner before you venture up there.
  • Dust in attics isn’t just an issue when you’re trying to take credible orb photos.  It’s also an allergen for many people.
  • Basements are prone to mold and mildew.  Against cement or stone walls, the problems may not be obvious until someone starts wheezing.
  • In cities and warm climates where cockroaches are a steady problem, remember that it’s not always the insects but their droppings that present the worst respiratory challenges for people with allergies.
  • Histoplasmosis – Bat droppings can put you at risk. It’s not just “bats in the belfry,” but bats (and sometimes birds) in the attic and the basement.  Histoplasmosis can be a serious respiratory disease and a significant threat in some areas.  As it says at Bats and Rabies, “To be safe, avoid breathing dust in areas where there are animal droppings… wear a respirator that can guard against particles as small as two microns.”  Every researcher should have — at the very least — a few simple, paper masks in his or her ghost hunting kit. (However, not all blue medical masks protect at the level you need. Read the label!)
  • If you’re exploring a haunted cave (such as the Bell Witch cave), a mask is an especially good idea, if you’re subject to respiratory issues.
  • Investigating an abandoned hospital?  Some people worry about visiting old tuberculosis hospitals; they’re usually called sanitoriums.  Generally, TB can only be spread from human to human, and only when the contagious person has an active case of the disease.  However, some doctors are now saying that tuberculosis “is spread usually from person to person by breathing infected air during close contact.”  (Emphasis added.)  Should you wear a mask in dusty, abandoned hospitals?  Probably, but not because of TB.  At deserted sites, there’s a greater potential for disease-containing animal and insect droppings.

This isn’t a complete list of the risks involved in exploring old sites, especially those that haven’t been maintained, but it gives you the general idea.

Skip the scrubs, but consider the blue mask, seriously.
Skip the scrubs, but consider the blue mask. Be safe, no matter where you investigate.

With recent reports of ghost investigators becoming ill with life-threatening respiratory issues — and with the death of Sara Harris — we all need to be more aware of the dusty places we visit when we’re looking for ghosts.

You’re probably going to be in the dark, anyway.  Why not wear a mask if there are any reasons to be concerned?

A ten-cent paper mask can help protect your health, reduce your chances of an allergic reaction or asthma,  and — in extreme cases — might save your life.  Get a box for yourself, or your team, and carry some masks with you, no matter where you’re investigating.

Depending on your health concerns, and the environments where you’re researching, stronger protection may be necessary if biological hazards are a very real issue.

However, for the casual researcher visiting sites that may contain irritants, allergens, and significant dust, the basic mask is one that protects you from 2-micron size particles or smaller.  Inexpensive surgical masks are the simplest option, but be sure to read the labels.

(Also see Brian Cano’s comment, below. He makes some very good points.)

12 thoughts on “Ghost Hunting – Health and Safety Issues”

    1. Shane,

      I’m sure the paranormal community will come together to support any fundraiser you need to build health & safety awareness in this field. Let me know how I can help. I’ll happily donate autographed books and other in-kind items for an auction, or whatever you decide to do.

      Sincerely,
      Fiona

  1. Great article. We’ve been lecturing about this for years on the convention circuit, but under the banner of urban exploration. A word to the wise, yes a ten cent mask is not a bad thing to have but don’t let it replace your common sense. Those masks don’t keep out the things that can really cause problems. When it comes to these places…lets face it, many do this as a hobby, not a job. No one is going to cover you when you get sick, so err on the side of caution. Spend $30-$40 for the proper masks (as the article stated, read the labels, there are different ones for different particles).

    1. Very good points, Brian! (And yes, I did think of you right away when I heard that Sara was in the hospital. You’re often the guy sent into the dirty, dusty, icky crawlspaces and under houses, etc. and that’s a worry.)

  2. It’s something everyone in the paranormal community needs to keep in mind and sadly, many investigators are just unaware of how dangerous it can be. Thank you for sharing.

  3. with me being a new paranormal investigator, i havent been on many investigations other than cemetaries. I have bad asthma and right now im suffering from bronchitis. i do understand the dangers of paranormal investigating and im hoping to be able to add masks to our equipment…… unfortunately as a brand new team we cant afford masks at the moment. i am so sorry for your loss Shane! Thank you so much for righting this

  4. The one thing people often overlook is carbon monoxide – Odorless, and as a gas, passed right through ALL respirator masks, and is highly toxic at extremely low concentrations. Signs to look for include headache or a “heavy” feeling. It’s often mistaken for signs of spiritual oppression.

  5. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to lose a spouse. No on should have to go through something like that. In regards to the paranormal community in general, and those advocating more education in safety, why has no one discussing an end to trespassing? Just say no to trespassing. Get the message out there that people should not be doing it. Period.

    1. CB,

      Thanks for your comments. And, about the trespassing, I echo your sentiments, but I think a few people who’ve been in this field since forever — including me — will bristle a little seeing the question, “why has no one discussing [sic] an end to trespassing?” Many of us have been talking about trespassing, and issuing repeated warnings about it.

      Starting in the late 1990s — with the exception of a short time after the May 2012 site crash — almost every page at HollowHill.com has included the following lines: “Before visiting any ‘haunted’ site, verify the location, accessibility, and safety. Never visit private and/or posted property without permission.”

      And, my ghost hunting guidelines — also online since the 1990s — has always said (in Rule #3), to check accessibility to sites.

      Then, in case anyone missed my meaning, Rule #5 has always been, “5. Never trespass on private or posted property, without specific permission from the owners or authorities.” (While the word “trespass” isn’t entirely correct, grammatically speaking, I think it conveys the point.)

      But, having ranted at length in 2001 and 2002 about the trespassing issue — and things seemed to get worse, not better — I gave up my regular tirades about it. My recurring rants about Vale End are just more on the same theme, and seem equally ignored.

      The last time I ranted about this, when a bunch of NH students wrote to me, saying they were going to Vale End at night…? Someone chastised me for saying that those NH students were stupid, as if it were a faux pas to say they were being stupid by not only ignoring my warnings about Vale End, but also breaking the law by trespassing.

      (Whether I said so or not, students who did that were being stupid. It doesn’t help anyone if I’m so worried about hurt feelings, I don’t warn them about something they should have learned long before getting a driver’s license: “No Trespassing” means don’t go there.)

      As recently as 2008, I (yet again) stressed that “Trespassing is never an acceptable alternative.” (Ref: Getting Permission to Ghost Hunt).

      So, to suggest that “no one” has been talking about the trespassing problem… that’s kind of insulting to those of us who have talked about this over & over again, ad nauseum.

      As I said, I appreciate your comment and agree with your sentiments about this problem. If you can suggest a way to “get the message out,” that will actually make a difference… I think many of us would be eager to see how it works for you, and follow your lead.

      Sincerely,
      Fiona Broome

  6. It seems like the message isn’t getting through to them, then. Most likely because all ghost hunters are simply cos-playing their favourite ghost hunting show. Not only are they mimicking the ‘techniques’ used on the show – without any understanding – they are also trespassing to help emulate the actors on these shows. I’m glad to hear your rule 5 is in place. Maybe it’s time to bump it up to rule 1?

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