The Health Risks of Gardening

June 20th, 2014

Say what? You hear all the time about the health benefits of gardening, usually amounting to moderate activity for otherwise sedentary adults, but what about the health risks? Believe me, they exist.


Heavily Thorned Rose

Heavily Thorned Rose

Recently I encountered one. I was dealing with old roses, the polar vortex killed every last one I had down to the ground so I was pruning out all the old dead canes and then dragging them to my brush pile. I was wearing gloves, gloves with leather palms, but ventilated fabric backs. A rose thorn came in through the back of the glove and stabbed me in the second joint of my right ring finger. A fleshwound… but an infected one unfortunately. I was worried a fungus known to exist on rose thorns infected me, but luckily it was just bacteria, and I sort of mean that sarcastically. Before the discovery of antibiotics I would have lost a finger, if not the hand, ouch. Luckily today all I had to deal with was pain (a ton of swelling it that joint) some temporary loss of range of motion, and taking pills. The fungus would have been worse. Rose Handler’s Disease, otherwise known as sporotrichosis is an infection from a nasty fungus that can take a year or more to heal, requires you to take medicines with nasty side effects, and even today can result in amputations, especially if it gets into a joint. Here is a guy’s video on youtube where he talks about getting it, and sure, it looks small, but check the comments, his most recent one says he has been on treatment for 14 months, the wound oozes and will not heal, and he may still lose his thumb. If you have a strong stomach check out a google image search. Yuck, now remember, over a year to heal.

I don’t know where I first learned about sporotrichosis, but I knew about it before now, so as soon as it became obvious to me I had an infection I went right to the doctor hoping to head it off before it got bad, and luckily, luckily, it was just bacteria. This is no joke though, it isn’t something you’d only get if you were pruning roses in Africa or something, you can get this anywhere, in fully modern first world countries.

How do you avoid it? Don’t grow roses, but it isn’t just on roses (or always on roses either, it wasn’t on mine I guess). But wear gloves. these gloves on Amazon aren’t cheap, but unlike the gloves I had they have leather all around, on the back of the hand too, is your health worth the gamble?

So this episode got me thinking, what are other health risks of gardening?


The big C, yes, did I scare you? Gardening by definition happens outside, in the sun, the sun that causes skin cancer. If you’re caucasian, and you garden, and you don’t die young in an accident, you’ll probably get skin cancer one day. Hopefully it is a more benign kind, easily found, easily removed, but it is more or less a sure thing with enough sun exposure, especially when young. Radiation takes time to turn our cells cancerous, radiation from any source, the sun, X-rays, etc. A significant percentage of brain tumors for instance have been traced to CT scans given before the age of 30, to the point where many doctors have said on record they want to avoid ordering such scans on young people unless it is a life or death situation. See, when your cells get damaged from radiation it is a bit like that old campfire game where you whisper something around the circle and see how garbled it gets by the end. Each time the cell replicates the damage gets a little worse until eventually the cell can turn cancerous.

In a way we need to think differently about our kids. We might let them eat junk food because they’re growing and their not yet at an age where heart disease is a problem, this is not the same thing with sun exposure, the seeds of skin cancer in your 50s, 60s, and 70s are sown before you’re 20. Said another way, the younger you are, there is more effect on your potential eventual contraction of skin cancer for ANY sun exposure you get. Please, make your kids wear sun hats and put sunblock on them.

Suspicious Skin Cancer Lesions

Suspicious Skin Lesions

And yes, if you’re older, you still have to worry too, it is never too late to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging radiation. If you garden, you should have a garden hat, and please put sunblock on your shoulders, arms, and legs too. Get a hat with as wide a brim as you can find, and try to find one rated UPF 50+ for sun protection, not just any old hat, but one specifically treated to protect you from the sun. I like this brand.

Sun exposure is also responsible for aging our skin and destroying our collagen giving us wrinkles and making us old. So, you can be safe and beautiful, wear a hat.


Tetanus is a potentially deadly infection caused by a bacteria often found in soils. I remember when I once had a university greenhouse job it was mandated I get a booster shot before I could work there. All adults should receive a tetanus booster every 10 years, but gardeners definitely should. You can literally die from tetanus, even today.

My last tetanus shot was in 2008, when was yours? Do you remember? If you don’t remember make an appointment and get it done.

Stupid Bugs

Mosquitoes and other insects can also pose dangers as you work in your yard. Are there venomous spiders or snakes where you live? Do you take steps to avoid them such as bringing boots and gloves inside always? I did a whole blog post previously about mosquitoes and they can infect you with a variety of diseases, and it seems new mosquito born illnesses are coming to our shores all the time. Use a bug spray with DEET, and make your yard less mosquito friendly.

Giant Hogweed

So we know about poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, lots of plants can cause itchiness, rashes, contact dermatitis, but there is one that is even worse. Giant Hogweed, touching this plant can cause permanent scarring the blindness. One was recently removed from a yard in a nearby town and the people had to wear hazmat suits, see the below video:

Here is an image showing the progression of the damage:

Hogweed is a native to Asia and was introduced (by some idiot I’m sure) to New York in 1917, from there it has spread around the NE, into Canada, and also now Michigan:

If you see it, don’t touch it, but make sure you kill it or get someone else to kill it. Dump roundup on it from afar, pour vinegar or boiling water over it, burn it out with a weeding torch (wonderful tool).

But do not touch it.

Ears & Eyes

If you use power tools, you should always protect your ears and eyes. Hearing degrades all throughout our life and you’ll make yours last longer if you remember to protect it from loud noises. That your eyes need protection goes without saying, you don’t want a shard of something in your eye. Always wear appropriate protective gear when using power tools.

This is doubly true for chainsaws, probably the most dangerous tool a gardener may ever use. Not only should you use ear, eye, and head protection, but you should wear special chainsaw protective chaps and a protective jacket, ERs every year get people who accidentally cut into their own legs or into a shoulder (because of kickback) with a chainsaw. Chainsaws are no joke, you probably don’t want a severed limb so get the gear you need to stay safe.

Aches, Pains, Sprains

I once tried to lift a very large planter full of soil, others may not have even tried, but I was a young man and strong, but I lifted poorly, and twisted, and severely sprained my back/sacrum. It has been stiff ever since, and I’m talking like years later. I’ve had the full course of medical treatments , all different sorts of doctors, physical therapy, and etc, but it still bothers me every once in awhile.

Stretch, what helps the most with my back is stretching my hamstrings, because everything is connected and tight hamstrings pull your back and pelvis down and create pain, stretch your legs often, trust me, it really helps in the long wrong.

When lifting, always lift with your legs, if you don’t know how to do that, look up a video of someone doing a goblet squat. You keep your back straight, bend with the knees, and go up. Do not lift and twist at the same time.

3 Responses to “The Health Risks of Gardening”

  1. Natalie  Says:

    Hi, Im so sorry for what happened to you because of the plant. Everything ok now?

    Very well written posts!

  2. The Tree Center  Says:

    Great article! I noticed you didn’t touch on ticks and Lyme Disease though. They’re horrible in our neck of the woods.

  3. Administrator  Says:

    Actually not all better. The first round of antibiotics seemed to work, but then slowly the infection has come back, and I just did another course and no response seemingly this time. I need to call the doctor again.

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