A Primer On Health and Safety in the Garden
Carol Ann Rogers
In today's environment, there is extreme emphasis on health and safety concerning almost every aspect of our lives. Even with regulations in place, we sometimes get sick through no fault of our own, however, if we implement COMMON SENSE techniques, we can protect ourselves from unnecessary hardship especially when we are practicing the enjoyable hobby of gardening.
The easiest preventative solution to staving off the potentially fatal disease of tetanus is to get a tetanus booster shot at least every ten years. (The risk of death without immunization is higher in people over age 60). If you are a particularly vigorous gardener, ask your clinician if you should shorten the amount of time between boosters. One doesn't have to step on a rusty nail to get the disease. C. tetani, a cousin of the botulism organism, thrives in the soil, but can be found in dust, clothing, and the digestive tracts of many animals, so if manure is used in the garden, be aware of this. The organism itself is not what causes the disease, but the toxin it produces as a result of its' metabolic activity can be life threatening. As a rose enthusiast, being "stung" by a prickle or having some skin abrasions are part of the program! Since this bacteria is an anaerobe, it finds a perfect habitat within the confines of these types of wounds, which in many cases, look like a minor injuries. Personal protective equipment (ppe) and basic first aid will be discussed subsequently, but first and foremost, get that booster shot! (Ask your physician about having pertussis included in the vaccine as this disease can be mild for adults but lethal for infants who contract it from adults.)
While on the topic of human diseases that can be acquired while in the garden, there are some others that are not as well known as tetanus, but dangerous in their own right. Mycobacteria, usually found in soil and in water can take up residence in your lungs, lymph nodes, bones and joints. These infections can be quite troublesome, and in the case of bone and joint involvement, treatments of cleansing, removal of foreign material, and sometimes surgery can be indicated. Again, entry to the body is through an open wound in the skin. Fungal diseases transmitted through plants to humans via the skin can also be a problem. Sporothrix schenckii, causes sporotrichcosis (also called rose fever), and seems to have an affinity for rose prickles, soil, and decaying vegetation. When this type of fungus enters the body, it may take several months to present itself usually in the form of a small, sometimes painless, red bump or lump that develops at the site of the initial injury. Eventually ulceration occurs, and a line of ulcers follow the lymph flow as the infection progresses. People with compromised immune systems are especially at risk and treatment can be prolonged. Sporothrix can also be found in sphagnum moss used in floral decorations, but not in sphagnum peat products. Aspergillus is another fungus usually found in poorly aerated composted materials. When the spores are inhaled, they can be detrimental to people who are predisposed to respiratory problems.
The afore mentioned maladies, are, of course, quite rare, but do occur, and it is important to be cognizant of this fact, however, using COMMON SENSE will put the mind to rest and keep gardening an enjoyable hobby. Personal protective equipment is an easy way to keep yourself safe. When in the garden, long pants, long sleeves, sturdy shoes and socks, and most importantly, long, thick, leather gloves should be worn. Eye and head protection is important, also, and if pulmonary problems are a factor, a dust mask can be beneficial when working with compost or mulch. Actually, using this ppe can also protect you from being stung by bees or bitten by the notoriously poisonous brown recluse spider, and keep skin irritants like poison ivy away. It will also help to keep disease bearing ticks at bay! Remember, after the fact is too late. Protect yourself!
On an orthopedic note, prolonged repetitive motions can cause skin, tendon, or nerve irritation, so vary activities and rest muscles so the same ones are not over used. Only use tools for their intended purpose, use safety locks, and of course, keep sharp instruments away from children and pets. Try to avoid products with form-fitting contoured handles as all hand sizes are not the same and trying to adjust to something that doesn't fit can strain or injure your hands and arms.
Should a mishap such as a cut or abrasion occur while gardening, immediately wash the area with soap and water and apply an antibiotic ointment. If facilities are not available, keep an alcohol based hand sanitizer in your pocket. Apply pressure for bleeding. If bleeding does not subside within 15 minutes, you notice persistent numbness or tingling in the fingertips or are unaware of your tetanus immunization status, seek medical attention. Also, listen to your body. If you observe an injury that is not healing properly or looks suspicious, get a medical opinion.
The trend for gardeners, especially rosarians, is to grow easy care plants which are most importantly disease resistant therefore requiring little if any spraying. However, if you have older bushes or plants that are susceptible to disease then some spraying may be required. Another thought is how you perceive your gardens. For those who exhibit their roses or other flowers it is imperative to show pristine blooms and stems. If you are just interested in fragrance and color, then the degree of impairment from pests and disease is not as crucial.
Ideally, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the best way to garden. This program requires identification of the pest and uses targeted physical, cultural, and/or biological means to keep the plant damage from reaching unacceptable levels. IPM also requires treating your plants with the least toxic materials first, and move upward if the desired control is not attained. If stronger chemicals are needed, remember that the suffix "cide" means to kill. According to the EPA, a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest. Pests can be insects, mice, and other animals, unwanted plants, (weeds), fungi, or microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. The term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, mitacides, and various other substances used to control pests. Under United States law, a pesticide is also any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant. Toxicity is a measure of how poisonous a material is. Therefore, when shopping for chemicals be aware of the "Signal Words" designated by the EPA on every container of pesticide on the market. These words are as follows:
Toxicity Category Signal Word
1 DANGER, POISON
1V CAUTION (optional)
The label is also required to give active ingredients and their percentage by weight, types of plants that the pesticide can be used on, pests targeted, required ppe, usage directions, storage, disposal information, important precautionary statements, first aid instructions, environmental hazards, and important email or telephone numbers. The government has done their job, now the consumer must do theirs. READ THE LABEL!!! Read before purchase and again before use so you know exactly how the pesticide should be handled. Never, ever, use products that are designated for use by licensed professionals only, unless, of course, you are one, and if a product is considered a "natural" remedy, remember that some ingredients such as pyrethroids can cause irritation to the user.
The personal protective equipment you should always have available to you when using chemicals consists of goggles with side shields (eyeglasses are not sufficient to protect the eyes from splash accidents), long gloves made of nitrile, (cloth or leather will absorb chemicals, therefore are unacceptable), long sleeved shirt, pants, socks, shoes and a hat. This clothing should be dedicated to spraying only and washed in hot, soapy water separately from other routine clothing. A lightweight Tyvek suit is another option. As COMMON SENSE dictates, if you are only treating a couple of plants with a ready mixed formula in a spray container, follow the directions. A "hazmat" suit will not be necessary.
If recommended by the chemical manufacturer, the use of a respirator is an important ppe component. Choose equipment suitable for the job. This includes how long you will be exposed to the hazardous material, the characteristic of the work area such as ventilation, and how the chemicals are being applied such as with a fogger or atomizing sprayer. Respirators should be individually fitted and the proper filters used, cleaned and stored. Dust masks alone do not provide appropriate protection from spray drift. A good nursery, Crop Division Agway stores, or on line rose supply or safety companies can help with proper equipment. Remember, if you can smell the chemical, the seal of the respirator around your face is not adequate. Also, if you are allergic to or highly sensitive to pesticide formulations your overall ppe may have to be enhanced according to a clinician's directive.
The type of sprayer you choose is important, too. Purchase equipment that you can easily handle and feel comfortable with. Always consider the number of plants you have to treat as to the size and type of sprayer you are going to use, and make sure the nozzle setting is correct according to the directions.
Again, I will mention COMMON SENSE when preparing to treat your plants with pesticides. READ THE LABEL AGAIN!! Make sure you are familiar with first aid instructions before you begin a spraying
session. Don your protective equipment. Only prepare enough chemicals for one application and make sure weather conditions are appropriate. This means that plants should be well hydrated, the temperature should not be excessively high, and the wind should be calm, (under 10 mph.) If there is a slight breeze, obviously, spray with its direction to protect yourself from drift. Of course, you should not be eating, drinking or smoking during any part of the procedure and close windows, cover pet dishes, sandboxes and plastic pools. Keep children and pets inside until the spray dries and if you have a substantial number of plants to be treated, place a yellow pesticide alert sign on your property. Clean your sprayer and wash your gloves with soap and water before removing them. If you notice that your gloves are becoming dry or cracked, replace them with a new pair. Rinse off protective eye wear and clean your respirator according to directions. Chemicals should be stored in their original containers in a cool dark place away from pets and children. Wash your hands thoroughly before leaving your prep area, make sure shoes or boots are removed before you track through your house, and shower as soon as possible.
Pesticide poisoning doesn't occur very often and many times the victims are greenhouse workers who routinely use organophosphates and carbamates. Over exposure to these chemicals destroys vital enzymes in the nervous system. They are cholinesterase inhibitors and people who use them often have their enzyme levels base lined and periodically monitored with the stimulant atropine available for emergencies. A patient who suspects a poisoning incident usually presents with headache, blurred vision, excessive perspiration or salivation, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and chest tightness. In extreme central nervous system involvement, cyanosis, convulsions and loss of consciousness can be present. Poisoning usually occurs from skin absorption, but will eventually be expelled by the body.
As a sidelight, if you are so inclined to use roses as an ingredient in any food recipe, COMMON SENSE tells you to use only plants that reside in a spray free garden. Labels can be confusing as to what chemicals and mixtures are safe, and since roses are not considered fruits or vegetables, it makes it difficult to decide what may be harmful.
I would be remiss if I didn't include problems stemming from sun and heat overexposure occurring while in the garden. Wearing a hat protects your scalp from the harmful rays of the sun. Melanomas of the scalp are becoming more common and are difficult to detect so wear a hat, and, of course, apply sun screen to your face and other exposed areas. Try to garden in the morning when it is cool especially if you are wearing the ppe that is suggested. It is very easy to get overheated and experience heat exhaustion or life threatening heat stroke so make sure you are well hydrated, and if you feel light headed, nauseated, or especially if you stop sweating or there is a change in mental status such as confusion or seizure, get into a cool place, rest, and get help.
Also, if you find injured or sick birds or small animals in the yard and you are inclined to assist them, ALWAYS WEAR GLOVES because these creatures can carry many diseases that can enter the body via small open cuts or abrasions on your hands. Rabbits, in particular along with squirrels, mice, birds, and deer can be infected with a bacteria which causes tularemia. This is a rare infectious disease that can attack the skin, eyes, and lungs. It spreads to humans through several routes, including tick and fly bites along with direct exposure to the infected animal. Early antibiotic treatment is imperative for
this highly contagious (animal to person) illness to be cured. The feces of cats along with poorly cooked meat can also carry a single-celled parasitic organism which causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be very harmful to humans, especially pregnant women. Wild and domestic felines are the parasite's ultimate host, and the highly infectious cells can remain in the soil for months given optimum conditions. You may accidentally ingest the parasites if you touch your mouth after gardening, cleaning a litter box or touching anything that's come in contact with infected cat feces. Cats who hunt or eat raw meat are most likely to harbor the parasite. If you are healthy, your immune system keeps the parasites at bay and they remain in the body in an inactive state for life. This provides immunity, however, if your resistance becomes weakened, the infection can become reactivated leading to serious complications. So again, use COMMON SENSE, and if you cannot handle an issue yourself, call your local animal rehabilitator for assistance, and listen to your body. If you have been in contact with birds and animals as well as stray cats who frequent your yard, and don't feel well, have a health professional evaluate you.
The bottom line in this primer is to use COMMON SENSE when gardening. Remember accidents happen because of carelessness or misuse of products. Again, the most dangerous pesticide poisonings occur through dermal and inhalation routes into the body especially when the chemicals are in concentrated form, so READ THE LABELS, pay attention to what you are doing and don't take short cuts. Wearing the proper personal protection, especially gloves, can't be emphasized enough. It is so much easier to do the right thing rather than having to go through extensive testing to identify a health problem that could have been so easily avoided.
There are hazards associated with just about everything we do. I have touched lightly on ones that we can encounter in the garden, however, the recommendations to protect our environment and ourselves are easy. Following simple instructions make the hobby of gardening more enjoyable because we can definitely have happy roses and happy bodies at the same time! CAR 2011
Websites to get additional information on the subjects covered are:
www.caes.state.ct.us (search on ipm when you get to CT Agricultural Experiment Station)