Asking For A Friend: Digging in the dirt without gloves has health risks

It's good for your mental health to get down and dirty in your garden, but don't ignore the harmful toxins and bacteria that can lurk in the mud and water.

Karen Hawthorne 4 minute read April 29, 2022
hands in dirt planting small tree in garden.

Depending on the location of your garden, there may be toxins in your soil that you should protect yourself from. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I am an avid gardener, and I am wondering about the health risks of gardening without gloves. How dangerous is my dirt?

Signed, Digging and Exposed


Dear Digging and Exposed,

One sure way to make the most of spring is getting outside to garden. The benefits go far beyond producing fresh fruits, vegetables and all those wonderful flowers.

Science has long touted gardening’s impact on improving mood and mental health, and gardens that are attached to hospices, care homes and prisons are widely adopted. In fact, the social and physical benefits of communal and therapeutic garden projects have also been reported to delay symptoms of dementia.

But what about getting your hands dirty? Are there health risks to getting skin-to-soil?

Jason Tetro, an Edmonton, Alberta-based microbiologist and immunologist, host of the Super Awesome Science Show podcast and author of The Germ Files, is an avid gardener who wears the type of leather gloves used by electricians when he’s planting and weeding.

“I love the smell of fresh soil and the bit of ozone in the dirt, but I have sensitive hands and I want to keep them as nice as possible,” he says of his preference to wear heavy gloves when he’s working in dirt and using hand tools.

How dirty is dirt?

He says that if your garden happens to be near a large factory, industrial complex or busy urban roadway, there may be toxins in your soil that you should protect yourself from.

“You want to be aware of possible contaminants in the soil,” Tetro says. “So if you’re planning for a home garden, the best thing to do is to go up to the highest point in the home and have a look to see what’s around you.”

Continued exposure to chemicals and trace elements in the soil, absorbed by your skin, could lead to negative health outcomes, he says, pointing to top offenders like lead and cadmium, well documented by the World Health Organization as toxic to human and environmental health.

Studies have shown that urban gardens can have legacy trace metals from building, industry, transport and waste practices, including lead from years of leaded gasoline emissions and the decay of lead-based paint on older buildings.

If you’re concerned about the safety of your dirt, Tetro recommends collecting a soil sample and taking it to a local lab for testing (there’s a handy guide to do so). Another good practice that he follows himself is growing food in containers, so “you can have more control over the small plant universe” with quality soil and nutrients.

Digging the dangerous bacteria

Another risk that may lurk in your dirt is bacteria, and if you have a cut or scrape on your hands, not covering them when you garden provides an easy gateway for it to get into your body and make you very sick. Even getting a splinter in the garden can be risky.

According to the University of Queensland, there are five reasons to wear gloves when you garden, including tetanus, sepsis, legionellosis (related to the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease and caused by contact with bacteria in standing water, as well as through inhaling contaminated soil and manure), and the rare “rose gardener’s disease,” a skin infection caused by a fungus that lives in rose bushes and hay.

There is good bacteria in the garden too

On the other side of pollutants and germs in the soil are the host of positives offered by exposing yourself to health-promoting microbes in the dirt. These include the common backyard bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae that may help reduce stress and chronic inflammation, and lower allergic asthma symptoms.

Current studies and clinical trials are showing that the presence of what are called ‘psychobiotics’ like Mycobacterium vaccae may help your health, keeping you regular and helping with food digestion,” Tetro says.

Still, while getting a little dirty can help balance your gut microbes and strengthen your immune system, it’s a good idea to be aware of the health risks — this includes watching what you are tracking into your home.

Use your mudroom the way it’s intended, advises Tetro.

“If you’ve been outdoors, take off your shoes in the mudroom when you come in and wash your hands,” he says. “Minimizing the risk of any bad microbes is also important.”

Karen Hawthorne is a Toronto-based writer.

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