Gardening is undoubtedly good for your health. Many doctors will tell you that the exercise, the fresh air, the sense of enjoyment and accomplishment are all part of the ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach to living a healthy life. However, hidden in your garden are a number of dangers which are rarely talked about but which can have a profoundly negative effect on your health. The good news is that they are all easily prevented by following a few simple guidelines.
The issue of your garden making you ill hit the news recently when the Lancet medical journal reported that a gardener had contracted a potentially fatal form of Legionnaire’s Disease from garden compost. This is rare in the UK but the bacteria is more prevalent in warmer climates or situations where compost is kept in high temperature conditions such as a greenhouse. In Australia all commercial compost is required to carry a warning about the disease. The bacteria, Legionella longbeachae, can produce fever and a form of pneumonia that requires treatment in intensive care – not a pleasant outcome from an afternoon in the garden.
This case reminded me of an email last year - we were contacted by a customer who was feeling unwell (tight chest, wheezy, slight headache etc) after cleaning out her greenhouse, describing a nasty metallic taste in her mouth which persisted for almost two weeks. This is actually more common than people realise, although the symptoms can vary. The source in this case was old geraniums with a white furry mould on them but any decaying matter, moulds or fungus may cause problems. Breathing the spores of a fungus can have very detrimental effects and in extreme cases can even lead to death, as in the case of a gardener who died in 2008 after inhaling the spores from old bags of compost.
Prevention is Better than Cure: the Ten Point Checklist
What should be done to avoid these and other potentially serious health issues? The following simple steps will dramatically reduce your chances of contracting something or a nasty accident occurring:
- Cover up cuts: The Legionnaire’s case mentioned above was contracted through a cut in the gardener’s finger and there are other soil borne diseases that can spread this way, tetanus being the most common. A plaster and gardening gloves are always advisable if you are aware of any skin cuts or abrasions and remember to clean new wounds thoroughly.
- Avoid breathing in spores and dust: Be careful of situations where fungal spores can be released, particularly where the contents have been warm or stored in enclosed spaces. Opening bags of compost, cleaning out a greenhouse and dislodging mould from containers are all likely to release spores into the air. Wearing a suitable face mask can help but making sure the area is well ventilated and not breathing in any dust is also a sensible precaution.
- Beware parasitic insects: If you live a region where ticks or other parasites are a problem then you need to take precautions during the summer months. See Barbara Pleasant’s article on preventing lyme disease from ticks for details.
- Wash vegetables and fruit carefully: Although we think of organic fruit and vegetables as being healthy because they are not sprayed with pesticides they could have come into contact with bird or pet faeces and may carry diseases such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella. Washing in clean water is the best prevention particularly for things that are consumed raw such as salads and fruit.
- Only use composted manure: If you use manure on your garden then make sure it is well composted to reduce the number of pathogens in it before you incorporate it into the soil and use gloves when handling it.
- Garden organically: Every few years more pesticides are banned as we discover the detrimental effects they have on human health. Pesticides and insecticides are not necessary if you learn to use natural methods such as companion planting to attract beneficial insects, trap cropping and barriers.
- Use grey water wisely: Water from your house needs to be used with sensible precaution in the garden to avoid diseases or pathogens – see our article on Using Grey Water.
- Be careful of stakes and canes: This one sounds really obvious but it’s actually all too easy to bend down or turn around while doing a gardening job and be poked in the eye by a bamboo cane or plant support! A simple way to prevent this is to place a small upturned plant pot on the top of each cane which makes it stand out and protects you from the sharpness of the end.
- Protect your back: Unless you are used to heavy physical labour it is best not to suddenly blitz your garden or try to create 10 raised beds in an afternoon. Gardening is hard work and should be treated like any other physical exercise – little and often is best for the garden and for you.
- Child-proof your garden and shed: If you have any old chemicals then make sure they are out of reach and out of sight, along with any sharp tools. Open water such as ponds and water butts should be fenced or covered and you should check if any of your plants have poisonous berries, leaves etc. It’s easy to forget these safety measures if you don’t have children in your household but they are still important if friends or relatives with children visit occasionally.