Gardening is good for your health, but it can pose some risks if you’re not careful. For example, you should use sensible protection against the sun to prevent cancer, a significant cause of death in Australia.
Further reading: The science is in: gardening is good for you
Gardening in Australia also requires, to varying degrees, depending on where in the country you are, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. There is an enormous number of agents with multiple formulations, depending on what you are doing, what plants you are tending, the size of your garden, and the kind of soil.
The garden treatments are specific and powerful, which means they work only (mostly) on what you want. Even the “natural” treatments, such as sulfur dust for controlling caterpillars and molds, are still chemicals.
Even sulfur dust can be harmful to your health. Yates Tomato and Vegetable Dust Product Page/Screenshot
Regulation of Chemicals
Australia has strict regulations on gardening products. I want to introduce you to the Australian Veterinary Medicines and Pesticides Authority. This body regulates the pesticides (substances that kill insects, weeds, and pests) and herbicides (substances that kill only weeds and not pests) sold in Australia.
AVPMA reviews products regularly for safety concerns. However, the reviews can be done decades apart. It coordinates with World Health Organisation and its counterparts from Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Due to the sheer number and variety of formulations, it is impossible for me to cover all chemical groups or compounds. You can use the AVPMA website to search for ingredients of a pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer if you’re concerned about it.
It can be difficult to identify some products because they may not have the chemical name, but only the brand name. Most pesticides and weed killers sold by reputable companies will have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). You can check the AVPMA website with this link.
Pests can be dealt with in several ways: by repelling, smothering or poisoning them. Shutterstock.com
Pests can be dealt with in three different ways: by repelling, smothering or poisoning them. If they are in large quantities, all of these chemicals can be harmful to people. In an urban garden, exposure to pesticides tends to be small and short-lived.
Oils such as petroleum oil are commonly used to control pests, like leaf pests, on citrus or in other situations. You may experience skin irritation if you use these sprays frequently without gloves. Or lung irritation, if you breathe in the spray. Always follow the instructions, including wearing gloves and spraying in a way that the wind does not blow the spray into your face.
Some chrysanthemums naturally contain pyrethrums. Shutterstock.com
pyrethrums are modern poisoning insectsicides that can be found in chrysanthemums. The natural pyrethrum as well as the synthetic pyrethroids are not toxic to humans, especially at the dosages that are found in garden products. If instructions are followed, pyrethroids can be used continuously without causing any health issues to humans.
Synthetic insecticides, Neonicotinoids, mimic nicotine which is toxic for insects. They can be used in pest control, but only if they are used carefully and sparingly. These insecticides are not pyrethroids and target the same pathway in an insect’s nervous system that is shared by humans. They could harm us.
If used according to the instructions, should not be a problem. Animal studies also suggest that should not have any significant effects on human health. Neonicotinoids can poison the bees. However, Australia did not experience the bee crisis that was seen in parts of Europe and the US.
Further reading: Birds, bees and bugs: your garden is an ecosystem, and it needs looking after
Chronic use of neonicotinoids in a human gardening population has not been assessed for long-term health effects, but a small study of agricultural workers has shown no effect of chronic exposure. Another small study, however, suggests some association with memory loss.
There are a variety of herbicides available, depending on the type of weed being controlled and how it is to be killed.
The first is glyphosate. It’s used to kill broadleaf plants. This chemical, also known as Roundup , caused controversy when the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that it was a probable carcinogen.