Spiders and snakes aren’t the only things you need to worry about in your backyard. Few hobbies are safer than gardening, but there are potential risks lurking just beneath your fingertips. Some are man-made, but most occur naturally.
Tetanus, also called lockjaw, is a potentially fatal disease that has largely been forgotten. It’s caused by a bacteria that lives in the soil and in animal feces. The bacteria produces a powerful toxin that damages nerve tissues and causes intense muscle spasms, particularly in the neck and jaw. Tetanus can enter the body through any open wound, from the prick of a rose, the scrape of a dirty tool or the puncture of a rusty nail. Many cases of tetanus result from minor injuries that aren’t taken seriously or treated properly. Two-thirds of all cases occur in people 50-over. Diabetics have an even higher risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 50 to 100 cases reported each year, 31 percent are acquired while doing gardening or farm work. There’s no cure for tetanus and the only way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated. Immunity lasts 10 years and if you can’t remember the last time you had a booster shot, it’s time to get a new one. Tetanus is rare because the vaccine is highly effective. Despite what anyone tells you, you can’t get tetanus from the vaccine.
Legionella is the bacteria that causes a form of pneumonia called Legionnaires’ disease. There are two strains of this bacteria. One strain is related to illness associated with water and air conditioning systems. The other strain is related to illness associated with potting mixes, soils, mulches and compost. This bacteria can be inhaled or enter the body through an open wound. The CDC estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with this disease each year. Anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of these cases are fatal. The incidence of Legionnaires’ is probably greater because the symptoms are similar to other types of pneumonia. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for this disease that takes its name from the setting where it was first identified, the 1976 American Legion convention in Philadelphia.
Who hasn’t taken a drink from a garden hose? Not only is the hose itself a potential risk, but so is the water inside. Many hoses are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and were never intended to deliver drinking water. PVC is a toxic plastic that often contains lead and other chemicals that can cause liver, kidney and thyroid problems. Sunlight and heat can increase the leaching of these chemicals from the hose material into the water inside. Unless it’s labelled safe for drinking water, don’t use it to fill your pet bowls either. Purchase garden hoses made from natural rubber or FDA-certified polyurethane. Most standard garden hoses connect with brass fittings which also contain lead. Shop carefully.
Legionella bacteria can also thrive in garden hoses left lying in the summer heat. The sun can turn a hose containing stagnant water into an incubator of sickness. A spray nozzle can generate a fine mist that is easily inhaled. Clinical cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been associated with this mode of transmission. It’s probably not a good idea to drink from a garden hose. They’re not covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, but maybe they should be.
How can we garden more safely? First, quit smoking. Smoking makes you more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses. Always wear gloves when handling compost, soil or manure and wash your hands frequently. Open bags of compost away from your face in a well-ventilated area. To keep down the dust, dampen potting mixes before handling and consider wearing a mask. Let your garden hose run a few minutes before using the spray attachment and empty it out each day. Lastly, keep your tetanus immunity up to date. Booster shots are required every 10 years.
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org