The sound is unmistakable and, having known a few pipers myself, those who play are unique and usually unforgettable.
I received a note from one of these wonderful musicians earlier this week asking about the nature of a recent story making the headlines. A British bagpiper came to a rather unfortunate end as a result of lung disease. He apparently had died of a rare condition called “Bagpipe Lung.”
I went in search of the original paper and found it in the journal, Thorax:
Bagpipe lung; a new type of interstitial lung disease? — King et al. — Thorax
The story of the individual’s plight was quite sad to read. Doctors tried to find any reason for the illness but came up empty. He wasn’t a smoker nor did he have any outward signs of infection. They tried a number of antibiotics and antifungals yet nothing seemed to help.
After he died, the cause was eventually determined. He had suffered from a condition known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis. In essence, his lungs had shut off in the same manner as an allergic response.
Knowing that the person was a piper, the doctors wondered if the instrument could have played a role in the condition. They took samples from various areas of the bagpipe, including the bag, the neck, and the reed protector. They cultured them and waited to see if their theory was correct.
Here’s what they found…
All the samples showed the presence of fungi, some of which were potential pathogens. For the authors, this made perfect sense. As they state in the article…
“The moist environment of bagpipes promotes yeast and mould contamination, thereby making the chronic inhalation of offending antigens a likely trigger.”
For any piper, these words are disturbing to say the least. The bagpipe is a delicate instrument and removing microbial life may be difficult. Making this situation worse is the lack of any guidelines on how to properly clean the various parts.
When I shared this information with the piper, I was pleasantly surprised to hear he was not at all worried – it turns out he was once an ER nurse. Instead, he shared with me his regimen for cleaning:
“Good old soap and water and replacing the hemp that seals the joints on the stocks reasonably regularly.”
Of course, if you want a more scientific option, there is a study from 1958 that says pretty much the same thing. You can read that here:
Bacteriological and Cleaning Studies on the Mouthpieces of Musical Instruments
Another excellent option is to keep regular visitations with a doctor to keep track of lung performance. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis develops over time and can be reversed if caught early. A doctor can also make referrals if necessary such that any warning signs can be diagnosed and treated.
Whether you choose to pipe regal refrains or something that might well…
I hope this information will help raise awareness so everyone who chooses to pick up the bagpipe can keep those resplendent reeds a-roaring!