What’s In Your Dirt??



by Shelly Barnes, Extension Agent, Family, and Consumer Sciences, Wilson County, TN

How well do you know your dirt?

Summer: that time of year when birds sing, romance blooms, and soil attracts. Adults unleash their winter-slumbering gardening genes, planting vegetables and flowers with explosive enthusiasm, while children frolic in the mysteries of nature, reveling in the gritty coolness and tantalizing allure of dirt. In most cases, soil is a benign seasonal companion, happy to oblige the pastoral pursuits of old and young alike or content to sprout grass and clover. Except when dirt harbors more than just, uh, dirt. All of which is to ask:  How well do you know your dirt!?

Gardeners are advised to be aware of the potential for lead in their soil, particularly if the property borders a busy highway, where leaded gasoline particulate may still malinger. Vacant land that once sited an old home containing lead-based paint may also raise concerns as to the safety for planting edibles. Lead uptake among produce is most likely in root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, and turnips.

In fact, a plant’s roots frequently arrest lead content, halting its northward travel. Plant leaves and stems exhibit the second greatest quantity of lead, while seeds and fruits absorb the smallest amounts of leads. Where soil contamination is likely, raised bed gardening is a safer alternative.

Children’s natural affinity for mud pie bakeries is usually most effectively vanquished by providing a large sandbox filled with play sand. It is especially critical that little ones avoid playing in bare dirt or soil surrounding the foundation of older homes.

According to Bonnie Hinds, Extension Environmental Health Specialist, while lead content is among the more common soil contaminants and health risks associated with Mother Nature, there are other perils that may await the uninitiated dirt adherent. Peat moss, a traditional soil consort, receives more than its share of controversy, primarily due to environmental detriments. It may, however, be afflicted by a fungus that also grows in hay. Sporotrichosis is a fungal infection that may result from small skin cuts or wounds suffered during gardening. Generally confined to exposed hands and arms, sporotrichosis is treated with topical medications. Although rare, the infection can also spread to other organs or the central nervous system, generally among those who suffer from impaired immune systems. Wearing gloves and long sleeves is key to prevention.

Tetanus is a toxic form of bacteria that lives in soil, dust, and manure. While many people are familiar with the name, they associate tetanus most commonly with manmade objects, such as the legendary “rusty nail.” That nail, however, is only the immediate culprit, allowing the puncture wound that then admits the poison, which has accrued from dirt or another natural environment. Most Americans are inoculated against the bacteria, although immunity relies on vaccine boosters among adults at least every ten years. Although American cases number only a few dozen annually, tetanus is a medical emergency with ten to 20 percent of cases proving fatal. One of the most recognizable signs of tetanus is a stiffening of the facial muscles known as lockjaw. In the United States, 30 percent of those who contract tetanus do so through gardening or lawn work.

Tetanus, at certain ages, is combined with other vaccines, such as Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis). To learn more, visit the CDC’s tetanus page:


And then, there are TICKS. These nasty little parasites live in moist, shady areas and lay their eggs on the ground. Any time spent in tall grass in warmer months is time that tick exposure is likely. Keeping covered in long sleeves, pants, and socks and shoes is important to prevention. Light-colored clothing also helps spot ticks who cling to fabric. The deer and the dog are the disease-causing varieties of ticks, with the potential for spreading Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to their human hosts. Both diseases require medical attention as early as possible.


UT Extension provides a gateway to the University of Tennessee as the outreach unit of the Institute of Agriculture. With an office in every Tennessee county, UT Extension delivers educational programs and research-based information to citizens throughout the state. Through its land-grant mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. utia.tennessee.edu.

For more information on this or other family topics, contact Shelly Barnes, family and consumer sciences Extension agent for UT Extension in Wilson County. Barnes may be reached at [email protected] or 615-444-9584 ext 105.

Additional Sources




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