The days are getting a little shorter, the air a little nippier; and soon, it’ll be time to dust the cobwebs from your Halloween decorations (except the ones that are cobwebs.) The waning heat makes early autumn an ideal time to do yard work. It’s important to recognize that innocuous tasks like raking, mowing, and edging can be—cue the slasher music from Psycho!—hazardous to your health. Not as hazardous as Norman Bates, but worth taking steps to mitigate. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from the health risks associated with fall lawn care.
Problem: Poisonous Chemicals
Fertilizing your lawn in fall is important because it helps the grass grow stronger roots to ensure it can come back to life in the spring. But harsh chemicals may irritate your skin, lungs, and eyes. Worse, they may be associated with an increased risk of cancer.
Solution: To mitigate these hazards, apply fertilizer, herbicides, and other treatments on days when there is little to no wind, and cover your body: long sleeves and full-length pants will keep the chemicals off your skin. If you’re spraying, consider wearing a properly fit, high-quality mask (cloth and surgical masks aren’t effective.)
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends using lawn chemicals as sparingly as possible. When buying products, make sure you aren’t doubling up; for example, some fertilizers already contain herbicides, so don’t expose your lawn (or yourself) twice. Also, don’t apply lawn chemicals if rain is in the forecast. Rain causes chemical run-off that can pollute groundwater as well as nearby streams, ponds, and lakes.
Always keep lawn-care products locked away from children and pets, and in their original containers. Review safety instructions before you use the product. After treating your lawn with any kind of chemical, wait 48 hours before playing that game of touch football or letting pets romp in the grass.
Increasingly, homeowners are interested in eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional grass lawn. Consider adding plants that are native, drought-resistant, or that engage symbiotically with local wildlife, such as birds and bees. A healthier lawn environment can reduce water consumption and the need for pesticides, without compromising aesthetics.
Mold spores waft through the air, just waiting for a sensitive soul to breathe them in and react with sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, coughing, wheezing, and congestion. Misery!
Solution: Because mold grows in warm, damp environments, including grass and leaf piles, experts recommend wearing a mask while you mow the lawn or rake leaves, especially if the humidity is high or the leaves are damp.
Problem: Mower Hazards
When you rev up the mower to give your grass a high-and-tight, your lawn may thank you by throwing out rocks, sticks, and wood fragments that can injure exposed skin. Meanwhile, bloodthirsty (or merely irritable) insects like ticks, mosquitoes, wasps, and spiders can bite, sting, and make you regret the day you moved out of that high rise condo.
Solution: You remember what every dad looked like mowing the lawn in the 1970s, right? Bare torso, checkered shorts, beer in hand. Don’t do that. Sure, it’s got a certain retro chic, but it won’t protect you from the sticks, stones, and stingers. Instead, wear a lightweight shirt and long, close fitting pants with breathable, moisture-wicking fabric.
And for the love of toes, don’t wear flip-flops! Stick to sneakers or some kind of close-toed shoe. Wear safety glasses or a cheap pair of wraparound shades; regular sunglasses don’t protect you from the side; and expensive sunglasses might get chipped by whatever projectiles your mower kicks up. If you’ve got a gas mower, you should know that it’s polluting in two ways: with emissions and with noise. Gas mowers growl at about 95 decibels, enough to do damage if you don’t wear earplugs. Electric mowers are quieter and easier on your ears (and your neighbors.)
Problem: Fall Pollen
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, ragweed is the most common trigger for fall allergies, after pumpkin spice. (Just kidding pumpkin spice, we love you.) Ragweed proliferates everywhere, but is especially common on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Other fall pollen culprits include sagebrush, cocklebur, and the dreaded Russian thistle.
Solution: By November, pollenating plants have mostly finished their business for the year, but until then, avoid doing yard work on especially dry, windy days—that’s when pollen levels are at their peak.
If you are prone to allergies, wear a mask while working outdoors. But even after you return indoors, pollen can stick with you, literally. Change clothes right away and wash those work clothes in hot water to thoroughly dissolve the pollen. If your sinuses won’t quit punishing you for trying to make your yard look nice, try a saline nasal rinse to flush out the offending spores.
It’s true, your autumn lawn offers a veritable haunted house of threats and menace (cue the Psycho music again), but the right clothes and protective equipment should protect you from all of it. So put away the flip-flops, put on a mask and your most stylish pair of safety goggles, and make your neighbors jealous. An ice cold beer will be waiting for you when you’re finished. Or maybe a pumpkin spice latte. Your call.