Empower Sustainability

6 Toxic Things to Keep Out of Your Natural Garden

Young girl in greenhouse putting plant in pot
Written by Guggie Daly

It’s almost that time of the year…the time where fellow garden enthusiasts begin to dream about frugal, fun, and different containers to hold plants. Please remember that some materials are unsafe for edible gardens.

1. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is cheap and durable so a lot of people think this is a great option for gardening. Unfortunately, PVC can leach hundreds of chemicals into the soil, and thus, your plants. It’s listed as a carcinogenic material by the World Health Organisation and the chemicals present create a host of potential issues from irritation to the skin to hormone disruption. Manufacturing PVC also releases dioxins which are dangerous halogen compounds that accumulate in fatty tissue and can be transferred to your baby via the placenta and breastmilk. There is no known safe level for dioxins and they damage the entire body, including the teeth, immune system, and brain.

For the safety of you, your children, and the planet, please attempt to avoid PVC products at all costs, most especially when gardening. Look for the #3 symbol or PVC listed on any packaging or on the material itself.

2. Leaded materials, such as those adorable gutters you’ve seen pictured in children’s playrooms to hold books, are lead-lined and carry the prop 65 warning. They can contain lead levels far higher than the legal limits for children’s toys. Using them as makeshift pots means you can contaminate the soil and plants with lead. Lead contaminated soil can also be tracked into the home, posing a direct exposure route to small children who are at increased risk of behavioral issues and learning disorders from it.

3. Reclaimed pallets aren’t as fantastic as you think once you realize how they are made and what they store. You can find lots of artistic ideas to use old pallets, but usually pallets are made out of low quality wood that is heavily treated. Additionally, pallets are often used to transport and store products which might have their own toxins, such as treated lumber and building materials. This has the doubly unfortunate effect of wasting your time with a product that will rot quickly while exposing your soil and plants to a variety of chemicals that you can’t confirm or research. It’s a blind game of guess-the-chemical, and you and your family lose out. Unless you’re sure that the pallets are clear of chemicals, it’s best to pass on this cheap idea, or make your own versions with safer materials.

4. Railroad ties are still a problem. The creosote can leach into your soil and plants. Creosote is so problematic that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a six-phase guideline on safe handling and restrictions for use. Here are the basics from their site:


• Do not use where frequent or prolonged contact with bare skin can occur.

• Do not use in residential settings. In interiors of industrial buildings, it should be used only for industrial building components which are in ground contact and subject to decay or insect infestation and for wood block flooring in industrial settings.

• Do not use in the interiors of farm buildings where there may be direct contact with domestic animals or livestock which may bite or lick the wood.

• Do not use treated wood for cutting boards or counter tops.

• Do not use where it may come into direct or indirect contact with public drinking water.


• Dispose of treated wood by ordinary trash collection or burial.• Do not burn wood in open fires or in stoves, fireplaces, or residential boilers because toxic chemicals may be produced as part of the smoke and ashes.

• Avoid frequent or prolonged inhalation of sawdust from treated wood.

• Avoid frequent or prolonged skin contact with creosote-treated wood.

• When handling the wood, wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants and use gloves impervious to the chemicals.

• When power-sawing and machining, wear goggles to protect eyes from flying particles.

• Wash work clothes separately from other household clothing. Although some people argue that old railroad ties don’t pose a problem because they have already leached chemicals into the environment, how can you be sure this has already occurred? Is it really worth the risk to your family and pets?

5. Treated lumber. Because treated lumber lasts longer and is more durable, it seems to be a worthy option, but many of the chemicals used can leach into the soil and plants. Research the chemicals and treatment process first to decide what you are comfortable with and what dangers the chemicals might pose.

For example, Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) quickly became popular in the gardening world because people believed the materials didn’t leach. This provided a durable and safe material, that is, until we learned the chemicals DO leach into the soil. Although proponents claim that leaching is unlikely, and migration of arsenic in the soil is low, it’s still a potential risk that some people would not choose if they were informed about it. It’s also a topic that can give you some deep belly laughs. I read one gardening article that attempted to defend CCA treated wood, saying it only leached in higher PH levels, and didn’t migrate far from the wood location. Then on the next page, the writer reminded gardeners to handle the wood carefully while wearing gloves and a dust mask! The disconnect is always a sign of something unpleasant in these topics and this one is no exception. Do the research before you buy to make sure it’s what you want in your yard.

6. Sevin dust is making a comeback, but needs to go extinct. Sevin dust was very popular in the mid 1900s and heavily abused in developing countries where acute exposure harmed many people. Later on, we finally figured out it was a neurologically damaging substance. It temporarily inhibits an enzyme in the brain that processes acetylcholine. Besides this, it is also carcinogenic (causes cancer), mutagenic (causes DNA mutations), and teratogenic (causes defects during pregnancy.) Sevin dust is listed as a carcinogenic and is connected to neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As if that isn’t bad enough and causing you to cringe while you read this, Sevin also kills our precious bees and is toxic in the water to invertabrates and mollusks. It also has a synergistic effect with Scott’s Weed and Miracle Grow, meaning it increases the toxicity when mixed.

Wildly, some people still consider Sevin a natural alternative to other pesticides and continue to carry on their family tradition of sprinkling it onto all of their edible plants. Don’t make the same mistake!

Unique and frugal gardening is a fun hobby, and sometimes a necessary one for those on tight budgets. Don’t let a tight budget or a desire for acute, urban garden lead you into a costly hole of disease and health problems. Make sure you research the materials you want to use before planting in them and when in doubt, throw it out! If you’ve collected some of the hazardous materials listed here, make sure you throw them out safely. Some materials cannot be burned or discarded into normal trash collection, which only underscores how dangerous they are for gardening!

With a little bit more research, you can still have fun and keep to a budget, while also protecting your family, pets, and environment from a host of troubles.

About the author

Guggie Daly