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Safety in the Garden

By Barbara Leach, Horticulture Techniciation, VCE-Roanoke

When most of us think about safety in the garden we think about things like heat stress, sunburns, and hornets and wasps.  There’s also safety with tools. Can’t you hear your mother saying, “Don’t lay your rake on the ground or someone will step on the tines!”?  I envision cuts while trying to sharpen blades or reaching into a bush and getting bitten by something.  Watch out for Black Widow spiders under pot rims and under the hanging hose.  There are eye, back, and knee injuries.

Today I want to talk to you about unseen dangers in the garden.  I am talking about microbes.  My intention is to make you think, not to spread mass hysteria.  Stories about anthrax, botulism, Legionnaires’, and tetanus abound, so use some common sense.

When it gets this hot, it is easy to be tempted to remove your garden gloves.  I grew up in a generation when it was thought a little good dirt made you tough and resilient.  Now we are in the age of superbugs.  Before you pull off those gloves, think about the hidden dangers.  What is the first thing you do when your gloves are off and it is hot and you are sweaty?  First, your nose is bound to start to itch; then you rub your eyes!  How about scratching your ears?  These simple movements can introduce fungi and bacteria that can be extremely hazardous.

Because mammals have immune systems, fungal infections are relatively uncommon.  However, since the introduction of modern drugs and factors that can weaken our immune systems, fungal infections have been on the rise.  As in all disease triangles, it is not enough for the pathogen to be present.  There also must be the correct host and the host must be susceptible.  With our stressful lives, is it any wonder that our immune systems are not always at their peak?  Fungal infections are most likely going to affect your airways or your skin.  That means you are probably going to inhale them or have direct dermal contact.

Some fungi cause pneumonia and can move to skin, joints, and the central nervous system.  Another fungus may start in the airways and eventually affect your bones, organs like the liver and spleen or the lymph nodes.  The growth of these nasty fungi can be affected by soil pH, soil and atmospheric moisture, and decaying matter in the soil.  You can’t just look at soil and tell whether it is infected.  The take-away message here is that when doing chores, especially those that kick up a little dust, keep your gloves on and consider the addition of a respirator or a dust mask.  I recently had a call from a family who got into trouble cleaning the remains of old bird nests.  The trouble started as an innocent enough nagging cough and progressed from there.  They were still seeking answers. 

A landscaper friend of mine related a horror story about his encounter with soil-borne bacteria.  He was raking up rotting leaves and debris from around some shrubs as he had done a thousand times before.  He had to get down and pull out the dusty stuff the rake could not get.  He did not even think to get out his respirator.  It was only the small amount left that the rake would not get!  This time the conditions were right for infection, and he had a lengthy and scary stay in the hospital while they tried to figure out what was going on.  His recovery has been slow.

Bacterial infections are passive and often enter through wounds, abrasions, or moist body openings like the nose, mouth or urogenital openings.  Bacterial infections are the most common infections.  Such infections can literally turn cells to mush, outgrow the host cells, or even release toxins.  Some soil-borne bacteria are “flesh-eating” bacteria.  Plastic surgeries might be needed to repair some of that damage.  Others release toxins that move systemically.  They have many modes of action.  Don’t scare yourself reading too much or you’ll never go outside again.  But let’s get real here.  Be wary, think, and plan ahead.                  

Speaking of safety in the garden, I had a recent encounter with a mulch fire in the parking lot at Kroger.  After stamping wildly like a mad woman and calling out to passersby to ask staff to bring water, I went back to the office with soot-covered legs and feet, and melted a relatively new pair of sandals.  I did have gratitude that we did not have to call the fire department and I did not get severe burns, had my sandals caught on fire.  Mulch fires can smolder underground and suddenly flare up.  Thoughts of the nearby underground gasoline tanks went through my mind as I was hopping around.  So to smokers still tossing their butts out the window, I just want to say, “Stop it!”