I've always thought of horse barns as being, well, "natural"--frigid air blasting down the aisles in winter, the smell of manure early in the morning, wood everywhere you look, barn swallows flitting about. For me, going to the barn every day was like getting back to nature. Sure, I knew all barns had a few chemicals sitting about and the smell of exhaust from the tractor as it hauled freshly mucked manure certainly isn't like a breath of fresh air, but that a barn could be toxic or environmentally hazardous didn't really register--until I met Kiley Taylor.
Taylor was Director of the HazMat Academy at Zephyr Environmental Corporation at the time of publication, a consulting, training, and data systems firm that assists clients worldwide with air quality, incident management, waste issues, and workplace and community safety (www.zephyrenv.com). And he's a horseman--what are the chances of ever finding that kind of combination?
"Barns, as a whole," says Taylor, "are hazardous. A barn's level of toxicity is a byproduct of the many 'chemicals'--and that includes everything from flyspray and DMSO to medication and fertilizers--that are often improperly stored, disposed of, and handled.
"It's important to remember that while hazardous chemicals affect all living creatures, people can take precautions when dealing with a potentially dangerous product and have more medical treatment options, so they are able to far better tolerate treatment in case of an exposure than horses and wildlife. If a chemical is a potential hazard for a human, great care should be taken to completely prevent or minimize an animal's exposure."
So, what steps can you take to make your barn less "toxic"? Here are the rules Taylor personally follows in his own barn:
Read labels: Before I buy any product for use on our farm, I want to know if it's potentially hazardous and in what way(s) it could harm me, the environment, or both. I always take a moment to read the label and consider the risk to my family, my animals, the environment, and myself before moving forward. Reading and understanding each chemical's potential hazard, and then abiding by the warning label, is key to maintaining a healthy barn. No one wants to be responsible for burning down a barn, or poisoning a horse or wildlife through negligence, but that risk is always possible if chemicals are improperly stored or used.
Store safely: Always store chemicals in their original containers with their lids secured. Keep them dry, avoid temperature extremes, and store them in areas separate from feed, horse equipment, and water. Too many barns have chemical products--often with damaged, dirt-encrusted, or capless containers and expired "Best by" dates--all stored together in cabinets or lined up on shelves in a store room or feed room.
Make certain that incompatible chemicals are never stored together. Just about every chemical will react with some other chemical, and the challenge in a horse barn is that there are all sorts of potentially dangerous chemical reactions that can occur if things spill and mix. All it takes is a kick from a feisty mare or a bump from the farrier's toolbox to knock over containers left open in the aisleway, creating a big dangerous mess.
Proper disposal: Periodically clean out your chemical stock and dispose of old or damaged cans and bottles. If your community doesn't have a "Hazardous Waste Collection Day," you can go to www.earth911.org to find centers in your area that will accept everything from pesticides to used batteries. Do not simply throw them in the trash or pour them down the drain. Proper disposal helps to keep other people and their animals safe and healthy.
Safe handling: Minimize your exposure to potentially toxic materials--and just about anything can be toxic if you get too much of it. Toxicologists like to say that "the dose (how much chemical entered or contacted a body) makes the poison." And keep in mind that size matters; for example, it may take a lot less poison (depending on the toxin) to harm a small child, foal, or in some cases even mature horses than a full-grown man.
Use "potentially hazardous chemicals"--any substances (solid, liquid, or gas) that are capable of causing harm to people, animals, or the environment when not properly used or contained--only in well ventilated areas that are free of incompatible materials.
Look for less toxic options: The greening of the world is creating all sorts of new alternatives to many common chemical products, so keep an eye out for them and use them whenever possible. But, never ever confuse "green" with "safe." There are many "green products" that can still be hazardous to your health--every solar panel system needs a battery with a corrosive chemical inside, and some green cleaners are still skin irritants and chemically reactive. Make certain to read the labels even on eco-friendly or natural products. Mother Nature has made some nasty chemicals all on her own!
Buy only as much as you need: Far too often people buy more product than they could possibly use in the year ahead. I don't know how many times we've had horse products that have gone bad before we used them all up.
Clean-up after your animals: Nobody wants horse manure in their drinking water.
This article is excerpted from the book Eco-Horsekeeping: Over 100 Budget-Friendly Ways You and Your Horse Can Save the Planet. To order the book, visit HorseBooksEtc.com.