by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
When I was about eight years old, and visiting my Granny on her farm in Texas, I stepped on a rusty nail while exploring around back of some old sheds. I limped back up to the house, the inside of my shoe squishy with blood. Mom washed my foot with soap and hot water, checking to make sure no debris was left inside the deep puncture wound. Then Granny sat me down in the kitchen, my foot soaking in a pan filled with hot water and a heaping handful of Epsom Salts, "to draw out the toxin," she said.
"Lockjaw!" I heard from every adult relative that came in and saw me sitting there. I'd seen The Wizard of Oz. I imagined the rust from the nail creeping up through my body, freezing me up just like the Tin Woodman, until I couldn't even utter the word, "oilcan" (good thing I didn't know it would also mean painful muscle spasms throughout the entire body, plus elevated temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, on-going for weeks). Mom assured me I'd be fine - I'd had my DT shots, before I started school just a couple of years earlier. I didn't know what a Deety was, I was just glad I had it.
Ten years later, when I was ready to go away to college, I first had to submit my immunization records. The university told me I needed a DT booster vaccination (which I now knew stood for Diphtheria/Tetanus) - the immunity lapses after 10 years. I've made sure to keep my immunity updated every decade since.
So why am I writing about this in a sustainable living blog? I now know rust doesn't cause Tetanus, but rusty cans and nails can often be found in areas harboring tetanus bacteria. The rough surface of a rusty object provides the perfect habitat for the tetanus bacteria to reside, and the sharp edges can make just the sort of break in your skin that provides the bacteria a route into your body. Tetanus bacteria spores are carried in the feces of animals, such as horses, cattle, chickens, dogs, cats, and guinea pigs. Anyone cleaning up after animals, making compost from manure, or using it in the garden, comes in contact with tetanus bacteria. Just getting your hands dirty while in your garden means you're probably carrying the spores on your skin. Tetanus bacteria thrives in hot, damp climates where the soil is rich in organic matter - exactly the type of environment organic gardeners strive to create.
Tetanus occurs when an open wound becomes contaminated with the bacteria. I know there are plenty of opportunities to cut, scratch, and puncture myself while working in my garden - splinters, insect bites, working around the cut ends of chicken wire, pruning roses and my particularly vicious blackberry brambles, to name only a few. Mom knew, even if you have a current tetanus vaccination, it's still necessary to immediately wash open wounds thoroughly with soap and water. I don't know if Granny's Epsom Salts treatment does anything, though. (Edit added later: upon confirmation by doctor's orders, from Jen in the comments, soaking in salt water really does draw toxins out of a wound - certainly not a substitute for a doctor's care in serious situations, but I thought it worth starting a "natural remedies" label on this blog).
Vaccines can prevent tetanus, but the immunity needs to be updated every 10 years. Since it can take up to two weeks for the antibodies to form, if you need a booster shot try to get it before your gardening season starts. Tetanus is fatal in 10 to 20% of reported cases (death occurs mainly in adults over 60, also the most likely to have let their immunity lapse), but even in less severe cases, with treatment, full recovery can take more than a year. Being sick and miserable, especially when it's easily preventable, makes no sense to me. I'd rather be safe than sorry, and stay healthy out there in my garden.