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Toxic outdoors
Avoid common dangers found in your yard and garden


May 2009

A garden is filled with enticing sights and smells, but it can be a potentially dangerous place for people and pets. Young children are especially vulnerable. "We receive 55,000 calls a year and over half of them are related to children under the age of 6," says Dr. David Gummin, toxicologist and medical director of the Wisconsin Poison Center at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. "Small children should never be left unattended around plants. You never know what a child will put in his mouth," he says.

Many common household or garden plants are toxic to humans and pets when eaten, including lily of the valley, larkspur, philodendron and thorn apple. Surprisingly, poinsettias are not poisonous, as many people think.

Wild mushrooms are a regular cause for calls to the poison center, according to Gummin. "If you think your child has ingested a mushroom, the best thing to do is call the poison center for advice. Most of our cases are successfully treated at home," he says.

Other substances frequently involved in accidental poisonings include chemical pesticides and fertilizers. "We use a lot of different fungicides and herbicides in the garden that can cause problems. If your neighbor treats his lawn and your dog walks on it, it could be tracked into the house or absorbed into the skin," says Dr. James M. Pugely, a specialist in allergy/immunology for Columbia St. Mary’s. One solution is to stop using toxic chemicals. "Many people are going green, using organic fertilizers such as compost and coffee grounds, or using organic pesticides like weak tea or other preparations," he says. "Of course, these are much better for the environment."

Skin infections can occur in the garden, too, according to Dr. David M. Letzer, an infectious disease specialist with Community Memorial Hospital in Menomonee Falls. "People will prick their fingers on the thorns of a rose bush and not wash their hands or get a sliver while pruning plants and not remove it. Or, they may be injured while using old, rusty tools. If these injuries are not treated, they can lead to serious infections," Letzer says. "Be sure to update your tetanus shot, too," he adds.

Certain insects carry illness. "Lyme disease is a serious tick-borne illness that people are sometimes exposed to in the garden or on hiking paths, especially in rural areas. My advice is to use good sense when you’re outside, pay attention to cuts and insect bites. Don’t let them become infected," Letzer warns.

Top 10 Pet Poisons

1. Human medications. Pets often snatch pill vials from counters and nightstands or gobble up medications accidentally dropped on the floor, so it’s essential to keep medications tucked away in hard-to-reach cabinets.

2. Insecticides. One of the most common incidents involves the misuse of flea and tick products, such as applying the wrong topical treatment to the wrong species.

3. People food. People food like grapes, raisins, avocado and certain citrus fruit can seriously harm our furry friends. One of the worst offenders is chocolate, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, panting, excessive thirst, urination, hyperactivity, and in severe cases, abnormal heart rhythm, tremors and seizures.

4. Rodenticides. Many baits used to attract rodents contain inactive ingredients that are attractive to pets as well.

5. Veterinary medications. Even though veterinary medications are intended for pets, they’re often misapplied or improperly dispensed by well-meaning pet parents.

6. Plants. Varieties such as azalea, rhododendron, sago palm, lilies, kalanchoe and schefflera are often found in homes and can be harmful to pets. Lilies are especially toxic to cats, and can cause life-threatening kidney failure even in small amounts.

7. Chemical hazards. Chemical hazards, found in ethylene glycol antifreeze, paint thinner, drain cleaners and pool/spa chemicals, form a substantial danger to pets.

8. Household cleaners. Take precautions to protect your pets from common agents such as bleaches, detergents and disinfectants. These products, when inhaled by animals, can cause serious gastrointestinal distress and irritation to the respiratory tract.

9. Heavy metals. Lead is especially pernicious, and pets are exposed to it through many sources, including consumer products, paint chips, linoleum and lead dust produced when surfaces in older homes are scraped or sanded.

10. Fertilizer. Last year, the ASPCA fielded more than 2,000 calls related to fertilizer exposure.

Source: ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center


This story ran in the May 2009 issue of: