Most of us consider our gardens a safe and relaxing sanctuary, close to nature and away from the polluting influence of industrialization. However, there seems to be no escaping the long arms of modernity that reach us even there, filling our gardens with toxic chemicals. In fact, we unknowingly bring them home with the many items we buy at the garden center.
It is important to recognize these pollutants and stay clear of them, especially if you’re growing edibles or your kids and pets use the garden for fun and frolic.
1. “Organic” pesticides
We might be carefully avoiding chemical pesticides because of their known toxicity but consider plant-based organic pesticides safe. Being organic doesn’t always make them non-toxic. Take the case of pyrethrin. Derived from a species of chrysanthemum native to East Africa, this substance is known for its insecticidal and insect-repellant property. But, along with pests, it can destroy beneficial insects like bees and butterflies.
Most of the pesticides that claim to be organic are not even pyrethrin-based but contain synthetic versions of the compound, known as pyrethroids. They have an action similar to the human hormone estrogen, and repeated exposure can potentially cause breast cancer. It can damage the nervous system of a fetus if a pregnant woman is exposed to it in the first trimester. In addition to that, another toxic chemical called piperonyl butoxide is often added to pyrethroids to increase their killing power.
Piperonyl butoxide is a microsomal cytochrome P450 enzymes inhibitor. Cytochrome P450 enzymes are present in almost all living tissues, including the human body. They play crucial roles in hormone synthesis and breakdown and deactivation of toxins entering the body as well as those generated as metabolic byproducts. Inhibition of these enzymes can put our health at risk.
Herbicides make short work of pesky weeds and are liberally used in many gardens because they are often projected as being safe for animals. The truth is that we aren’t all that different from plants. Whatever that kills weeds cannot be expected to have absolutely no impact on us and our pets.
The active herbicidal agent glyphosate in the popular product Roundup is known to kill fish when water runoff from sprayed gardens contaminate nearby water bodies. It also causes bladder cancer in dogs and increasing evidence points to its role in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans.
3. Synthetic fertilizers
Plants need many nutrients to thrive, and organic fertilizers like compost and manure can provide most of them. A few naturally occurring inorganic fertilizers such as rock phosphate, limestone, and gypsum also helps increase soil fertility and rectify mineral deficiencies and pH imbalances. However, gardeners are tempted to use synthetic fertilizers which offer quick results because of their high concentration of mineral compounds and enhanced bioavailability.
Many petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers have high amounts of toxic heavy metals which contaminate the soil. When they eventually reach water bodies, they precipitate the large-scale destruction of aquatic life. Algal blooms that kill off fish in ponds are often a fallout of synthetic fertilizer use.
Accidental ingestion of these toxic substances by children and pets has resulted in many casualties, mainly because the nitrates contained in them decrease the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells.
4. Plastic garden hoses
Garden hoses are essential equipment in any garden, and the PVC hoses widely available in many sizes seem a great option because they are cheaper, lighter, flexible, and long-lasting, compared to rubber hoses. But their flexibility and longevity come at a significant risk to our health. The additives such as BPA and phthalates, used for making plastics tough, yet flexible, are the main culprits.
Phthalates are endocrine disruptors; they interfere with the hormonal functions in the body. They are implicated in breast cancer. They adversely affect the development of fetuses and cause pre-term births. Genital defects and behavioral changes are also observed in boys, especially feminine behavior, which often persists into late childhood.
Phthalates are not strongly bound to PVC, so they easily leach into water and air. What is even worse is that they have a cumulative effect, so even low-level exposure can lead up to dangerous levels over time. Also, they work synergically with other carcinogens.
BPA is short for bisphenol A, another toxic chemical found in plastics. It is associated with brain defects and learning impairment, liver toxicity, and problems with prostate gland development in fetuses and young boys. Exposure can also cause high blood pressure.
The main issue with PVC hoses is that water remains in them for a long time. This increases the buildup of toxins to extremely high levels, especially when they remain exposed to sun’s heat. Water contained in PVC hoses tested for higher levels of lead and BPA, often 15-20 times the permissible levels in drinking water. When that water is used for washing hands and feet or for drinking or playing in, resulting chemical exposure can be very dangerous.
5. PVC garden boots
If rubber boots used to be the standard garden wear, they are now replaced by lightweight PVC boots that come in attractive colors and designs. When worn next to the skin, phthalates in the plastics get absorbed into the body. As in the case of PVC hoses, it can result in hormonal disruptions and other potential health problems.
Lead, cadmium, and such heavy metals contained in brightly colored paints also add to the problem. Lead has serious negative effects on brain development. It is implicated in birth defects and cognitive decline in children.
6. PVC garden gloves
Garden gloves made of plastics are easier to work with since the additives like phthalates and BPA give them as much flexibility as rubber gloves, if not more. They are easier to maintain and cheaper than leather gloves. However, wearing them for a few hours a day can give you a heavy dose of toxins. When buying garden gloves, make sure that they are not PVC-based.
7. Vinyl fence
Vinyl is just another term used to refer to PVC or polyvinyl chloride. Vinyl fencing can be a constant source of environmental pollution in your garden as it stands exposed to the elements day and night.
It is really sad that this manufactured material is widely used by many gardeners when they have the option of constructing fences with all kinds of natural materials like bamboo, wooden boards, or reclaimed lumber or even making living fences with evergreens or deciduous shrubs.
8. Garden ornaments
Garden ornaments are charming, and some of them are even functional. But when you add plastic trees, bushes, and even artificial grass to the landscape, it is just adding to the toxic chemical load of the environment. They are, of course, low maintenance, but at what cost to your health?
When you install a plastic bird bath or fountain, you might be able to attract winged visitors, but the toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals are just as dangerous to them. They may affect their fertility and reduce their numbers in the coming years. Avoid buying figurines, wind chimes, bird feeders, etc., in plastic, especially when you have plenty of choice in wood, glass, stone, and terracotta.
9. Kneeling pads
These soft, cushiony pads make gardening so much easier; there’s no doubt about it. The question is whether they have to be made of PVC or plastic foam which leaches harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. If you can’t get hold of good quality rubber pads, avoid buying them altogether. Wear cotton knee pads or carry a stuffed pillow on your gardening rounds.
10. Plastic mulch
Plastic mulch is often used as a ground cover to suppress weeds. It may even extend the growing season by preserving soil warmth to some extent. That’s why they are even recommended in organic gardens.
The problem with plastic mulch is that it is made of plastic. This petroleum-based product can add toxic chemicals to the soil and the air. Moisture trapped under the plastic can be very high in phthalates and BPA. It remains a big question whether these toxins can enter plant cells and poison our food.
Thick plantings of cover crops can suppress weeds almost as well as plastic sheeting and can add some nutrients to the soil when they are plowed in later.
11. Rubber mulch
This is an extremely unnecessary entrant into the garden scene, to say the least. Although it comes in attractive shades, and despite the fact that recycling tires are laudable, rubber mulch should be avoided in gardens because of its high chemical load.
Rubber is organic in origin, but it undergoes a series of chemical processes before it takes the form of tires, and the recycling process does not remove the huge number of toxic substances it may contain. It releases carcinogenic compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and phthalates into the soil and the atmosphere.
12. Cocoa mulch
This mulch has many things going for it: it is organic, it is lightweight yet stays put, it is easy to handle, and it comes in attractive natural colors and, of course, smells good. Since cocoa mulch is the byproduct of roasting cocoa beans, it is sterile and free of weed seeds. It makes an excellent ground cover, protecting the soil from drying out, and as it breaks down, adds nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous to the soil. What more could you ask for?
Well, the problem with cocoa mulch is that it contains theobromine, the stimulant chemical that makes chocolate dangerous to dogs. The symptoms of chocolate ingestion include muscle tremors, rapid heartbeat, and seizures, and it is often fatal.
As a matter of fact, cocoa mulch contains more theobromine than a bar of milk chocolate. Dogs have a higher risk of exposure from this mulch because they have access to unlimited quantity. Avoid buying cocoa mulch if you have pet dogs.
Take the time to learn about what garden products are environmentally friendly and those that may cause harm to your health, soil, water, and air. Reducing your carbon footprint takes time and education, but it is very worth it.