Gardening is healthful: But manage your risk


Physical exercise from gardening can lead to a better quality of life and improved state of mind. On the other hand, gardening also increases your chances for injury, illness or death from garden-related activities.

It all comes down to risk factors in everything you do — or don’t do — and your genetic predisposition. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission reports that about 400,000 gardeners seek medical treatment in emergency rooms for garden-related injuries, annually. In the general population, this is around one-tenth of 1 percent, or one out of every thousand people in the U.S. More than 25,000 people are injured, and 75 die, each year by riding lawnmowers or small garden tractors. Twenty percent of those fatalities are children. Gardening should be an activity that promotes healthy living, and you can minimize your risk factors by using caution and common sense.

For starters, read and understand label instructions and instructions in the owner’s manual. This is especially important when applying pesticides and other chemicals or using powered equipment and anything with a sharp blade. Follow federal rules and regulations when applying pesticides. The user instructions will include provisions on how much to use and proper equipment, including eye and ear protection, and other important considerations. Follow recommendations on the proper use of lawnmowers, especially on hills. Rollovers are a constant danger on Hawaii Island’s hilly terrain.

Risk includes doing more than we should on a particular day. As we garden, temperature, humidity and sunshine or what we refer to as “weather” affects our performance. Most of us work best when we feel comfortable and are not perspiring profusely. Heat can be deadly as it can induce heat stroke, dehydration and disorientation. Excessive heat also means long periods of exposure to sunshine and solar radiation. A short-term symptom of over-exposure is sunburn, while long-term consequences could include skin lesions or cancer. Working early or later in the day when the sun is not directly overhead reduces exposure. Clothing that covers arms and legs, a broad brim hat and covered shoes will help protect you from over-exposure. Clothing rated at SPF 50 will help protect your skin.

There are hidden risks in the garden, as the White House vegetable garden experienced with elevated levels of the heavy metal lead, as a result of using biosolids as fertilizer on the lawn before it became the garden. High concentrations of salts or other minerals in the soil, whether they are naturally occurring or the byproduct of human activity, can prevent the growth of many plants. In Hawaii, where many properties have a long history of use, many items may be buried in the soil such as household trash or even old vehicles. Some farm chemicals used decades ago may still be present in select locations. If you need to know or suspect a problem, proper soil testing can identify most chemicals.

Rats, mice, birds and other animals can be problematic if proper precautions are not instituted. All of these can be the source of, or spread microorganisms that can make you ill. Salmonella is commonly found in manure, including bird droppings, and can be present on raw fruits and vegetables. The rat lung worm or nematode originates in rat and mice feces which slugs and snails eat. The slug or snail passes the worm to your leafy vegetables in the slime trail. You might also consume very small slugs and snails which escape detection. The last risk group I would mention is the small organisms that call your garden their home. These include the many insects that bite, sting or hurt you intentionally or not. While many of these are beneficial to the garden for pollinating or prey on garden pests, learn to identify the good guys.

Thoroughly wash all vegetables you intend to consume raw and follow good handling and storage practices.

While we may have numerous risks while gardening, we can manage them by taking steps to reduce their severity. Many of these are easy to accomplish with good garden practices. So be aware and enjoy your garden.

For more information on this and other gardening topics, visit the CTAHR electronic publication website at ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/Info.aspx or visit any of the local Cooperative Extension Service offices around the island.

Nagata can be reached at russelln@hawaii.edu.