Health and Safety
In general, gardening is an activity that is very positive in terms of health and well being. People who take up gardening can expect to gain strength, flexibility and a higher level of general fitness. Most people find gardening relaxing and enjoy a sense of achievement as their efforts bear fruit.
Then of course there are the health benefits of food fresh from the garden which has not lost nutrients during transportation or storage. However, like virtually any other activity there are risks of gardening. This page is designed to help you minimise them.
The risks generally fall into three categories:
1) Risk of injury
2) Risk of infection – from inhaled microorganisms or those that may enter the body via broken skin
3) Risk of exposure to rodent-borne diseases
4) Risk of children accidentally being poisoned by garden products or drowning in buckets etc
5) Risk of producing food that is inadvertently contaminated with heavy metals or other toxic substances
I will deal with these each at a time:
1) Risk of injury and/or over-exertion
This can be minimised through commonsense. Take care when lifting heavy items such as bags of potting mix. This link has a guide to how to minimise the risk of injury when lifting heavy objects:
Remember: Bend from your knees. Do not use your back as a crane!
If you are unfit, take it easy to start with or you may find that using of muscles that you do not usually use may result in your being quite stiff and sore the next morning. If you have serious health problems (such as cardiovascular disease) it may be sensible to ask your health professional’s advice before gardening.
Ensure you have sufficient water to drink when gardening in hot weather.
2) Risk of infection
Compost and potting mixes can contain microorganisms (such as Legionella longbeachae that can cause Legionnaires disease – a serious and potentially fatal infection) that can be harmful if inhaled. For this reason, bags of compost etc come with a warning not to inhale dusts from these products. For this reason, it is essential to ensure that these products are damp when handling them and best to wear a P2 rated mask to minimise exposure to dusts that may contain potentially pathogenic organisms. While it is rare to become ill from using these products, the risk is real and should be taken seriously. People who are most at risk are those whose immune systems are suppressed due to illness or the use of certain medications such as steroids or drugs used in cancer chemotherapy. If you have been handling compost and develop a temperature and signs of a chest infection, make sure that you tell your doctor when you seek medical help so that the appropriate tests can be done.
Microorganisms in compost, potting mix and garden soil also pose risks if they enter the body through cuts in the skin. For this reason, cuts or grazes should be covered with sticking plasters before gardening. If you injure yourself while gardening, wounds should naturally be washed properly. Cleaning out the wound with hydrogen peroxide (available from pharmacies) is a good idea if the wound is deep as the hydrogen peroxide can help bubble dirt out of the wound.
Tetanus bacteria may be present in ordinary garden soil and occasionally people (mostly elderly women) contract tetanus as a result of gardening. Although tetanus is very rare, it can unfortunately be fatal even with good medical treatment. Adding high doses of vitamin C (administered by injection) to the standard treatment for tetanus was shown to reduce the mortality rate in a study in Bangladesh. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6466264
Special infection risks for pregnant women:
Garden soil may become contaminated with the parasite toxoplasma gondii (from cat faeces) which can cause toxoplasmosis (from cat faeces). Toxoplasmosis infections are often mild or asymptomatic. However developing toxoplasmosis during pregnancy can cause the baby to be born with birth defects and brain damage. The baby may also be born premature. For this reason, pregnant women should wear gloves when gardening and wash their hands thoroughly after gardening. They should also avoid handling cat litter boxes and ensure that meat is well cooked as undercooked meat may be a source of toxoplasma gondii. (If you are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, your midwife or doctor can organise a blood test to see whether or not you are already immune to toxoplasmosis.)
3) Rodent borne-diseases
Home compost heaps that contain food scraps can become a magnet for rats and mice wanting a free feed. This may be avoided by designing (or altering) a compost heap in such a way as to excludes rats and mice. (See the Compost page). Compost heaps that do allow rats and mice to have access to the pile may mean that rodent urine containing leptospira bacteria (the cause of leptospirosis) can contaminate the compost. An increased rodent population also poses a particular threat to people who are on tank water, since if rats run along the roof, their urine may end up being washed into the water supply.
Leptospirosis can is serious infection that can become life threatening (although it is very rarely fatal) in people. (See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002352/ ) The infection can also kill young dogs and affect farm animals.
4) Risk of children accidentally being poisoned by garden products or drowning
Even certified organic gardening products that are very low risk when used as directed have the potential to cause serious illness if accidentally ingested by a young child. Keep all gardening products OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.
Young children’s head’s are much heavier in comparison to their bodies’ than those of older children and adults. They are therefore at risk from drowning in small amounts of water as they may not be able to lift their head out of, for example, a bucket, into which they have peered into to investigate. (See http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/5006.html )
If you have young children or the area where you are gardening is accessible to young children, ensure that there are no buckets or other containers that could present a drowning hazard. Even a partially filled bucket can be dangerous.
If you are making seaweed tea or other home-made liquid fertilisers, ensure that these have lids that cannot be removed by a young child. (Having a lid will also prevent these from attracting flies.)
5) Minimise heavy metal contamination of food
If you are going to take the time to grow food, you will want to grow food that is the highest quality that you can – and avoid accidentally poisoning yourself and your family. The following tips should minimise the heavy metal content of food you produce.
* Do not grow food around the edges of buildings (houses, sheds etc) built before 1980 as in NZ lead-based paint was still in use until this time and may have flaked off and contaminated the soil (or been scraped from the walls on the soil during renovations.)
* Avoid using tanilised timber as garden edgings as the arsenic used in this timber treatment process can contaminate the soil.
* Avoid using recycled wood for garden edgings as it may have been painted with lead-based paint.
* Avoid using newspapers for mulch as the inks may contain heavy metals and aluminium compounds are used in the production of newsprint.
* Avoid using commercial compost products that contain sewerage sludge (often labelled as “biosolids”) as sewerage sludge has the potential to be contaminated with heavy metals.
* Ensure that compost, potting mix etc is damp so to minimise exposure to dusts
* It is advisable to wear a mask when handling compost etc
* Always cover cuts, grazes etc before gardening
* Carefully clean any cuts or scratches you may sustain while gardening
* Pregnant women should always wear gloves while gardening
* Dispose of cat litter into the rubbish; do not compost it
* Always wash your hands well after gardening
Handy Tip! If you don’t wear gloves while gardening, poking your fingers into a cake of soap before gardening so that a layer of soap is pushed beneath your nails. This prevents dirt from getting behind your nails and makes your hands much easier to clean afterwards.