I heard there is an organism in garden soil that can be harmful to pregnant women. Is this true?



A protozoan organism called toxoplasma can be present in garden soil and can be harmful to the infants of pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system if proper precautions are not taken. Toxoplasmosis causes flu-like symptoms, such as swollen lymph glands or muscle aches and pains that last a month or longer. It can also cause mental disabilities and/or eye damage to infants who are infected while in the womb. More than 60 million people in the United States are likely carriers of the toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. Toxoplasma can exist in soil when infected cat feces are present. Outdoor cats that eat mice are the most likely carriers. A cat can become infected by eating infected prey or being fed raw or undercooked meat infected with the parasite. Not all cats shed this organism all the time. An infected cat only sheds the organism for a few weeks. However, once it is in the soil, it can survive several months to a year or more, in spite of warm or cold weather. Dog feces do not cause toxoplasmosis, but can cause other problems. Toxoplasmosis is caused by hand to mouth contamination, and can come from sources other than infected garden soil. Some include eating meat that is not thoroughly cooked, contamination of knives, utensils, cutting boards and other foods that have had contact with raw meat and through contaminated drinking water. Though it is a serious threat, toxoplasmosis can easily be prevented by taking the appropriate precautions. To be properly protected if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, consider these tips.

· Always wear plastic or rubber gloves when gardening, and wash hands thoroughly when finished.

· Have someone else empty the cat litter if you have a house cat. Always wash your hands after petting or handling a cat.

· When preparing raw meat, wash cutting boards, sinks, knives and other utensils thoroughly with soap and hot water to avoid cross-contaminating other foods. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling raw meat.

· Cook all meat thoroughly and until it is no longer pink in the center or until the juices become colorless. Do not taste meat before it is fully cooked.

· To help prevent your cat from becoming infected with toxoplasma, keep it indoors and feed it dry or canned cat food.

· Try to keep cats out of garden areas. Repellents are available, but it is impossible to guarantee they will work. It is best to assume the area is contaminated and always wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly.

For further information on toxoplasmosis, visit the Center for Disease Control Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/toxoplasmosis/factsht_toxoplasmosis.

Posted on 23 Apr 2004

Clell Bagley
Extension vetrinarian

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