Minimising health risks in the garden

A common sense approach when out in the garden will help reduce potential risks posed by plants or diseases and ensure we continue to enjoy the health benefits of gardening.

Adding compost to a raised bed
Adding compost to a raised bed

Quick facts

Legionnaires disease can be caught from stagnant water or water droplets in warm conditions
Bioaerosols are micro-organisms present in compost heaps that can be harmful if breathed in
Tetanus is a bacterial infection that can enter through soiled cuts or wounds made by plant thorns
Weil's disease and salmonella can be transmitted by compost heaps or water containing rat urine

What risks are there?

Of course there are many obvious risks associated with gardening – stepping on a rake, tripping over a hose, etc – but it is good to be aware of some of the less apparent ones.

Disease and plant risks

Legionellosis (Legionella): caused by Legionella bacteria, this is an infectious disease that can be caught by anyone, but elderly gardeners and those with a suppressed immune system are most vulnerable. There are two types to which gardeners may be exposed: Legionella longbeachae, occuring in soil and compost, which can lead to a respiratory disease; and the more common L. pneumonophila, which leads to a type of pneumonia known as legionnaires disease. The latter form occurs naturally at low levels in watercourses but can multiply in standing water to potentially harmful levels when the water temperature is between 20°C to 45°C.

Bioaerosols: these are airborne micro-organisms including spores, bacteria and fungi (e.g. Aspergillus fumigatus) that are naturally present in decomposing material. Gardeners are most likely to breathe these in when turning compost, especially in warm weather. People with an existing chest conditions such as asthma or bronchitis or those prone to allergies are most at risk.

Tetanus: the tetanus bacterium can enter through cuts or wounds. Since gardeners regularly handle thorny plants, soil or manure, they are at a higher risk of being infected than non-gardeners.

Sepsis: although rare, sepsis can be triggered by an infection in any part of the body, following an injury in the garden such as a cut. You can find out more about the symptoms on the NHS website.

Weil’s disease (Leptospirosis): this is a disease humans can catch from rats through water or wet vegetation contaminated with rat urine. Rats also transmit salmonella.

Plant hazards: as well as some plants being poisonous, there are also a number of plants whose sap or hairs can cause skin blistering, burns, rashes or breathing difficulties.

Minimising the risks

What can we do to minimise the risks? Here are some simple precautions to take;

  • Wear gloves whenever handling soil, compost, toadstools, potentially harmful plants, fertiliser or pesticides. Thin latex (or latex-free for allergy sufferers) gloves can be worn for delicate work.
  • Do not open bags of compost or potting media with your head right over it.
  • Fold over the top of compost bags when not in use.
  • Avoid potting-up in confined spaces.
  • Moisten dry potting media before use. Also dampen down dry compost heaps before turning or use.
  • Consider wearing a dust mask when turning compost heaps and handling potting media or other dusty materials.
  • Avoiding storing potting media in greenhouses as these will heat up and may encourage Legionella.
  • Empty the water out of garden hoses after use and do not leave full hoses in the sun after use.
  • Avoid splashing water around when watering pots.
  • Keep water storage containers such as tanks and butts clean by emptying and scrubbing out once a year. Insulate them to reduce temperatures increasing in warm weather or paint them with a light colour to reflect the heat.
  • If the temperature of stored water for use in mist irrigation or sprinklers is above 20°C, do not use.
  • Wear gloves and keep arms covered when pruning plants that can cause irritations; e.g. ivy (Hedera), Fremontodendron, Euphorbia or rue (Ruta).
  • Only shred woody prunings in an open, well-ventilated area.
  • Ensure tetanus jabs are up to date. Otherwise, see your local GP for a tetanus vaccination if you have cut yourself on a plant or got soil or manure in an open wound.
  • Discourage rats by securing rubbish in bins and not putting cooked food on the compost heap.
  • Rat-proof compost bins with wire mesh if necessary. To reduce the risks from salmonella avoid using rat-infested compost on edible crops, especially those not cooked before consumption.
  • Protect from water-borne diseases such as Weil’s disease by wearing waterproof gloves, clothing and boots when clearing out ponds.
  • Always wash your hands after gardening and especially before eating.
  • Keep a hand sterilising gel down in the potting shed if clean water is not available.

General safety in the garden

There are potential risks when gardening, but planning your tasks, using the correct tools for the job and keeping machinery and tools well maintained are all steps you can take to keep safe

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.