Wednesday | November 22, 2017
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Gardening is healthful: But it pays to manage your risk

By Russell T. Nagata

University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Komohana Research and Extension Center, Hilo

It is a well-known fact that physical exercise from gardening can lead to a better quality of life and improved state of mind. It can also raise the probability that you can be injured, fall ill or even die due to garden-related activities. It all comes down to risk factors in everything you do (or don’t do) and your genetic predisposition you inherited from your parents.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, whose job it is to insure that lawn and garden tools are safe to use, reports that about 400,000 gardeners seek medical treatment in emergency rooms for garden related injuries, annually. In the general population, this is around 1/10 of 1 percent of all people in the United States, or one out of 1,000 people. More than 25,000 are injured from riding lawn mowers or small garden tractors and include 75 deaths of which, 20 percent are children. Gardening should be an activity that promotes healthy living and you can minimize your risk factors by using caution and common sense. Responsible gardeners must do their part and care for their own safety.

One of the most important factors in reducing risk for yourself and others is to 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.

As mentioned in other articles, the use of pesticides is regulated under federal rules and regulations and is meant to be followed. The user instructions will have provisions on how much to use, proper equipment/coverage to use such as clothing, eye and hearing protection, and other important considerations. For the use of mowers, the instructions would have recommendations on the proper use of the equipment, safety features, and most important how to operate on hills; Hawaii Island has numerous hills and rollovers are a constant danger.

Risk can also be in the form of doing more than we are capable of doing on a particular day. I mention this because as we garden, temperature, humidity and sunshine — or what we refer to as weather — does affect 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 a sunburn, while longer term consequence could be 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 as SPF 50 will do an excellent job of protecting 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 concentration of salts or other minerals in the soil can prevent the growth of many plants, whether they are naturally occurring or the byproduct of human activity. Here in Hawaii, where many properties have a long history of use, many items may be buried in the soil from household trash, old vehicles, or any other items that were no longer needed. Some farm chemicals used decades ago may still be present in select locations. If you need to know or suspect a problem, the proper soil testing can assist in identifying most chemicals.

Rats, mice, birds, and other animals, including the family cat, dog, or domestic farm 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 such as salmonella, E coli, etc. Salmonella is one of the most serious for fruits and vegetables eaten raw and is commonly found in manure, including bird droppings.

The rat lung worm or nematode originates in rat and mice feces, which slugs and snails eat, acquiring the rat lung worm. 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, preying on garden pests, learn to identify the good guys. Always thoroughly wash the vegetables you intend to consume raw and follow good handling and storage practices.

It is important to remember that while we may have numerous risks while gardening, we can manage risk 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, please visit the CTAHR electronic publication website at or visit any of the local Cooperative Extension Service offices around the Island. I can be reached at


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