Growing your own vegetables is a fantastic way for families to bond, to provide healthy food and to stay flexible in old age. However, does gardening have a dark side that people should be aware of?
In fact, anyone's garden could harbour a range of toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, asbestos and plastics. Here are some of the most common risks and ideas for how to mitigate them.
Deal with Heavy Metals Contamination
Over the years, many gardens have been used as dumping grounds for domestic waste, including millions of batteries. As they decay, ordinary batteries can allow lead and cadmium to escape, both of which are highly toxic substances. Mercury is another substance that leeches from batteries, and can lead to neurological problems.
However, for vegetable gardeners, cadmium is the worst culprit. That's because it is readily absorbed by many popular root plants like carrots or potatoes and finds its way into the final product, causing kidney problems, abdominal pain and, in the worst cases, cancer.
The good thing about cadmium is that there may be biological ways to remove it. Some soil scientists have had success by planting water hyacinths (which also draw up mercury and lead). If you find leaking batteries in your soil, planting a few hyacinths is a sound option.
Remove any Plastics from your Garden
Another source of contamination can be the plastic containers people use to grow seedlings and line beds. Many of them contain a compound known as bisphenol A (BPA), which has been found to boost breast cancer cells and lower sperm counts. It's thought to have a particularly bad impact on children, which is bad as mothers can expose their kids unwittingly as they garden. To minimise the risks, avoid plastic containers and use cardboard or wood based planters instead.
Get Rid of Any Asbestos in Your Soil
Another major problem for fruit and vegetable growers is asbestos. For decades, asbestos was used across Australia for building homes, sheds, pipes and walls, which has left a toxic legacy in the nation's soil. In some cases, the asbestos fibres in the soil can actually bond with root vegetables, and there is a risk for people working the soil too.
Asbestos soil removal isn't simple. Experts should be brought in to assess whether the asbestos is friable or non-friable (friable asbestos being the more immediately hazardous variety), and they can recommend soil treatment procedures to make it suitable for cultivation. In some cases, the level of friable asbestos generated by digging could already have created a hazard, and only an expert assessment can tell whether or not this is the case.
None of these threats should prevent keen gardeners from growing their own salad greens and vegetables. It just means that you need to take precautions and bring in experts when you suspect that land may be contaminated. That way, you can realise the benefits of growing food and keep you and your family safe from harm.