How to stay safe around soils

Gardening is a wonderful way to get outside, use your hands and help create something beautiful. What many people don’t realise, however, is that working with potting mix, soils and compost comes with some serious health risks.

Plants and soils contain bacteria and fungi, most of which help to break down decomposing matter. But some bacteria and fungi are pathogenic and can contain microorganisms that may be harmful to humans – commonly entering through cuts, splinters, scrapes and the airways.

If your work or hobby involves getting your hands stuck into the dirt, here are three reasons why you should exercise caution.

Legionnaires’ disease
Caused by bacteria that lives in warm, moist conditions, and spread by breathing in infectious droplets, Legionnaires is a very infectious disease that can cause a high fever and lead to pneumonia.

It’s a common disease that is often contracted when people inhale dust from potting mix or compost when they’re gardening. Anyone can get Legionnaires but those who are over 50, a smoker, with low immunity, or who’ve had a long-term illness (particularly lung disease) are more susceptible.

Symptoms may include: dry coughing, fever, chills, diarrhoea, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stomach pain, sweating, nausea and vomiting.

A well-known illness, tetanus infections can occur when you suffer a cut or scape from objects that have been in contact with contaminated soil, such as gardening tools, rose thorns and splinters.

Thankfully, for most people who have been vaccinated against tetanus, the body is able to fight back against the bacteria if infected.

Symptoms include: weakness, cramps and stiffness. More severe symptoms as a result of the toxins released can include: muscular paralysis and trouble chewing and swallowing (lockjaw).

If you work with cow, horse, chicken or other animal manure, the bacteria present can lead to the infection known as sepsis. Sepsis is a life-threatening illness that occurs when bacteria enter the blood and multiplies rapidly, causing the body to react with an inflammatory response. This can cause septic shock, organ failure and death if not treated straight away.

There are three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock.

Symptoms can include: a fever, a higher heart rate than 90 beats per minute, a breathing rate higher than 20 breathes per minute. You need to have two of these symptoms before a doctor can diagnose sepsis.

If you suspect that you, or someone you know, may have contracted sepsis, seek medical attention immediately.

How to work safely with soils
To avoid contracting any nasty illnesses, be careful when using soil, potting mix, compost and seed-raising mix by:

  • wearing a face mask and gloves
  • opening bags carefully with scissors (rather than ripping)
  • potting outside in well-ventilated areas
  • sprinkling water to dampen down soils and stop dust from spreading
  • washing hands very well after gardening.

Do you follow these rules when gardening? Have you ever contracted an illness from a potting mix or compost?

Related articles:
All-round gardening safety tips
Gardening on a budget
Are your cleaning products toxic?

Written by Amelia Theodorakis

A writer and communications specialist with eight years’ in startups, SMEs, not-for-profits and corporates. Interests and expertise in gender studies, history, finance, banking, human interest, literature and poetry.

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