Have you tested your soil for lead?

Lately a lot of my gardening has involved following my toddler down the paths, picking a weed here and there. He is thankfully past the put-every-single-thing-in-your-mouth-phase, but he still occasionally samples soil or sand. While I don’t mind these natural encounters with mineral and microbial diversity, I do worry about lead contamination.

I’ve been meaning to do soil tests in our yard for a while now and finally dropped off samples at the lab today. Our house is 109 years old and had been painted with lead paint. We are done with the remodeling which included asbestos and lead abatement and I want to see what we are left with in our yard.

I took three samples to Wyeast Environmental Services on Southeast 11th Ave. They charge $25 per sample. I will report back on the results and their service here.

Many gardeners and families with children and pets are concerned about lead. It’s one of the many environmental problems we created for ourselves in the recent past and are stuck dealing with. My recommendation is to test your soil so you know what you have to contend with. Then follow these remediation steps.

1. Keep the soil covered. Lead tends to settle out in the top inch of soil and the biggest hazard it poses (aside from children or pets actually eating paint chips) is it’s dust. So thick organic mulches, turf/eco-lawn or other non-toxic covering provides a barrier. Avoid gardening around busy roads and near older buildings.

2. If your soil is very contaminated, garden in raised beds filled with clean soil.

3. Grow plants that you harvest the fruits of, like beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, berries, apples, grapes and cucumbers. Though plants generally don’t take up lead, when they do it gets taken up into plants is stored first in roots, then leaves, lastly fruit. Some plants are known to take up more lead than others. These include spinach and sunflowers. Leafy plants and root crops may have contaminated soil on them.

4. Wash all garden produce! And peel root crops.

5. Grow foods up off the ground when possible. For example, grow melons and other squashes on trellises. Cage or stake tomato plants. Grow greens and berries in raised beds or containers.

6. Add organic matter to your soil and raise the pH to 6.0 or above. This makes lead less available to be taken up by plants. (And will improve your garden overall.)

7. Take off shoes when you come in the house.

8. Wash little people’s hands after they play in the garden and before each meal.

9. If you keep chickens do not let them run where there is flaking paint or chips. Eggs from chickens who peck paint chips have elevated lead levels, as you may imagine. More about that issues here and here.

Things to keep in mind:

There is no safe level of lead exposure for adults or children. If you have a structure, old window frames or furniture with lead paint, do lead remediation or dispose of the object.

The level of lead most people would get from their own organically grown produce poses less threat than conventional store bought produce that has pesticide residues.

A few resources about lead:

Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment  by Carl J. Rosen, University of Minnesota Extention

Evaluating and Reducing Lead Hazard in Gardens and Landscapes by Oregon DEQ

Lead poisoning in Children by advocate Tamara Rubin

I have been learning a lot about lead and would love comments with additional resources or questions.


About Mulysa

I love my work as a landscape designer and artist. When I'm not planning homesteads or working in the studio, you'll find me hiking, photographing, gardening, baking, cooking vegetarian meals with friends, reading and working on sustainability issues...with my baby on my hip in Portland, Oregon.
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