Don’t forget about personal safety in the yard while you concentrate on saving energy, time, and money. One slip or oversight can have serious consequences both immediate and in time.

Fertilizers are generally safe, but insecticides and pesticides should be considered hazardous unless proven otherwise.

Fertilizer and lime are safe, but the pesticides that control insects, plant diseases and plant growth should be suspect until proven otherwise. They are very useful in the garden, but as with chemotherapy, they have side effects.

All pesticides must be used correctly and safely. And they should never be used without compelling reason. Having a perfect lawn is not a compelling reason.

Pesticides are absorbed through the skin, particularly when a person is perspiring. They can also be absorbed by eating contaminated food, from unwashed hands and from the fur of cats and dogs. The largest amounts, however, are absorbed through the lungs from breathing spray or dust.

Acute exposure can cause skin rashes, itching, eye irritation, coughing, stuffed nose, headache, possible pregnancy problems and irritability. Larger doses can produce sperm reduction, insomnia, neurological symptoms such as tremors, numbness, dizziness, paralysis and difficulty breathing. One may feel "hyped up" as the body tries to rid itself of the poison by speeding up metabolism and adrenalin.

People who have repeated, small exposures may become sensitized. For instance, while nothing outwards happens the first nine times, antibodies will be formed inside the body. With the tenth exposure, one gets sick with symptoms. After that, the smallest dose will trigger the allergic reaction.

When using pesticides, respect them. To use them safely:

  • Read the small print on the label. You may need a magnifying glass, but do read what it is and how to use it. Make a card of the dilution rate with waterproof magic marker, and attach the card to the bottle with elastic. When microscopic instructions get wet, they become illegible.
  • Measure accurately. More is not better.
  • Dress protectively. Wear disposable gloves, long pants, and long sleeves.
  • Use a proper respirator with a disposable or gauze filter when spraying. A cardboard surgeon’s mask won’t do.
  • Always stand downwind. Don’t breathe the mist. More is absorbed through the lungs than by any other exposure.
  • Shower with warm (not hot) water and use lots of soap. No bath. Hot water might feel good, but it volatiles the chemicals so they can be breathed in more, and as the pores open, the pesticides can go into them instead of washing off.
  • Wash clothes separately, not in the family laundry. Most pesticides are not very water soluble but float on an oily film.
  • Storage should always be in the original container. Never mix them in a container that someone might drink, especially children. No soda bottles, please.

Bees can be very sensitive, so great care should be taken when using insecticides or pesticides around flowers.
Bees can be very sensitive, so great care should be taken when using insecticides or pesticides around flowers.

The Safer Insecticides
Always start with the safer insecticides, which are less toxic to humans. The safest ones are usually biological substances; the more toxic ones are usually chemical. But be respectful of all of them.

Rotenone, a tropical root extract, is widely used and is effective against many insects. Humans are rarely poisoned, but it may cause skin and eye irritation. It is very toxic to fish.

BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is an organism that produces a toxic stomach poison in butterfly and moth larvae after consumption. It is safe for humans and beneficial insects. It is the most useful safe pesticide at the moment, because it is so host-specific. Widespread use, however, is causing some insects to become resistant.

Pyrethrum is an old Persian remedy for sucking insects. Made from the daisy, it spread worldwide around 1800. It is nontoxic to humans but occasionally causes skin and nasal allergies. Pyrethrum works better at lower temperatures and breaks down rapidly from lime or soap. Synthetic pyrethroids are longer lasting.

Ryania comes from the roots and stems of a Trinidad plant. It is more persistent than either rotenone or pyrethrum.

Neem extract from the Indian lilac tree (Azadirachta idicia) is sold under many trade names. One is called BioNEEM, another Margosan-O.They work by preventing immature insects from molting and as a repellent. About 170 kinds of insects are affected by various chemicals refined from the extract. They have a short residual and have to be reapplied every ten days or so. Honeybees and beneficial adult insects are not harmed. Would-be fathers should stay away from them, because in India they are used as a male spermicidal contraception.

Predatory insects such as ladybugs, nonstinging wasps, praying mantis, spiders, dragonflies and nematodes appear to hold great promise as better techniques for applying them are defined.

Horticultural oils are used for sucking insects. Most are used when plants are dormant, for they are often phytotoxic to the leaves, especially young ones. Some of the newer, lighter ones can be safely used on certain plants when in leaf, however. The oils are not toxic as long as they are not breathed in.

The Least Dangerous Chemical Insecticides (sometimes necessary)

  • Carbaryl (Sevin) is a chemical for chewing insects but is toxic to bees. It has a short residual and harms some plants, including ivy.
  • Malathion, an old standby that kills on contact.

These two have the shortest residuals and are the safest, but there are many, many other chemical insecticides as well. Sometimes they are necessary.

A concern with all pesticides, and especially these, is the cumulative effect of low exposure, especially on babies and children, so do not use these on homegrown fruits and vegetables fed to children. Also, large-scale spraying of trees or lawns or shrubs should be avoided where children live. Termite and ant control in the house is another course of exposure for children, as are pets and rugs treated for fleas.

Fungicides and Herbicides
Fungicides are complex and very specific to timing and host. Expert advice is needed to use them correctly; otherwise, they are a waste of money. Their main purpose is to prevent fungus damage. They do not cure the fungus. It is better to keep plants airy, open in areas, and to water only in the morning, so the plants can dry out at night. Some plants, such as roses, do need them, however, no matter how careful the care and sanitation.

Herbicides are for weed control and are primarily growth regulators. They should not be used by homeowners except for very troublesome problems such as poison ivy or other invasive species. They should not be used routinely for crabgrass and dandelions on the lawn, as is the current practice. Who ever said every lawn has to be a weed-free carpet? Herbicides affect children, cause diseases and there have been serious questions about their connection to cancer. One herbicide has been linked to a particular cancer and others are known to affect sperm production. While herbicides are very useful, they should not be used without good reason and never where children play or pregnant women will be exposed; not, at least, until much more is known about their effect on human growth.

Chemicals are being regulated more and more. The uses and restrictions change every year. New ones are approved and old ones are outlawed. Man-made chemicals are much more effective, most useful and have a longer protective umbrella than botanicals; however, they are also more poisonous. Landscape professionals keep abreast of the changes and can be used as consultants for problems. Also state agricultural and extension services can be relied upon for current advice.

Always use safety equipment when operating potentially dangerous power tools.
Always use safety equipment when operating potentially dangerous power tools.

Machinery and Accidents
Power saws cause the highest percentage of serious injuries of any equipment. They are not toys. It’s important to take an instructional course before using one. Be very careful of kickbacks, which come from using the tip of the blade to cut and can be fatal. New saws are sold with kickback safety chains and bars. Have old saws upgraded with safety chains or replace the saw. Goggles should always be used. Also wear hard-toed shoes – never use a power saw while wearing sneakers or with bare legs. Ear plugs, leg chaps, hard hats, and other safety devices are used by professionals. Don’t take a power saw up a ladder, or saw above your head. Most old loggers have a few fingers missing. You don’t want to join them.

Lawnmowers are another source of serious injuries. Newer ones have safety shutoffs. Be careful of slippery wet grass that causes one to lose footing and fall underneath. Safety goggles should always be worn. Many serious eye injuries have resulted from flying debris or bits of stone. Naturally, never leave children near running mowers of any kind and don’t take them on tractor mowers no matter how exciting it may be for them.

Lead in the Soil
Lead in the soil is a concern where vegetables grow, where pregnant women live and where children play. Lead causes mental retardation, especially to fetuses and children. It is most common in urban yards and around older houses. How did it get there? First from paint. Before 1960, all paint contained lead. On the outside of buildings, it peeled, was scraped off, and fell to the ground. It is still there. Lead does not leach away in water as does salt and fertilizer. It just sits there and piles up.

Lead in the soil also comes from automobile exhaust from leaded gasoline. Unleaded gasoline auto fumes can still contaminate soil up to 50 feet from the road. Compost from street leaves may contain lead. Also, where old apple and fruit trees once grew, there usually is lead. The trees may be long gone, but the pesticide used on them, arsenate of lead, is still there. A new source of lead is dust from de-leading old houses and bridges. It seems you just can’t win with pollution.

The lead level in your soil can be tested by sending it to the state soil laboratory that handles soil testing. To protect yourself and your family from lead in the soil:

  • Don’t grow vegetables in contaminated soil. Leaf vegetables absorb the most lead; root vegetables absorb some; and fruits, such as tomatoes, absorb the least. If you have no small children and are not pregnant, growing tomatoes might be all right, but you may want to buy lettuce.
  • Children and pregnant women should be regularly tested at the doctor’s office for lead in the blood and take corrective medication if the level is high.
  • Don’t let small children play on bare soil. Hand-to-mouth contamination comes from sucking their fingers or toys. The dust can be inhaled, also. Fence off areas for play that are covered with thick grass. Or cover all exposed soil with some topsoil and grass sod (not seed), plastic sheeting, blacktop, or something that keeps down all the dust.

Current federal guidelines advocate removing the top 6 inches of contaminated soil and replacing it with clean soil. Federal guidelines, however, change frequently. There is a lead poison center in most large cities or hospitals that can give you the most current thinking.

Replacing the soil, or covering it with several inches of new loam is quite expensive. A medical study showed that removing the soil and replacing it with fresh soil did not significantly change the lead levels in the children who lived in old houses. It seems that dust from opening and closing the windows was much more contaminating.