By Janeen Ellsworth
This post was updated on 7/31/2019.
‘Tis the season for home-grown veggies. But before you plant those tomato seedlings, consider the soil they’ll be growing in.
If your backyard garden soil is tainted with toxins—like the lead we found in ours a few years back—you won’t want to eat the food you produce there because it could make you and your kids sick.
In today’s post-industrial, chemified world, good, healthy dirt can be hard to come by.
Remember the good old days of leaded gasoline?
From the 1920s all the way to 1989, liquid fuel was laced with lead, allegedly to reduce engine ‘knocking.’
Scientists knew lead was poisonous to humans as early as the 1850s, but that didn’t stop petrol producers from adding it anyway.
For nearly a century, lead burned inside our engines and then turned into fine particles of dust that floated through the air.
That lead is still floating around us today. It’s a metal. It doesn’t just vanish. It’s got no place to go.
Where Does Lead Come From?
There’s lead in coal, so during the production process to make it into electricity, coal is burned, sending off lead-laced fumes into the air. So if you live near a coal-fired power plant, the chance that you're inhaling the stuff, even in trace amounts, is very likely.
The Pittsburgh house I live in was built in 1907, and it was covered floor to ceiling with lead paint, until Andrew and his brother gutted it, hung new drywall, got the porch ripped off and replaced, and painted everything with the safe stuff, which is made of low-VOC-releasing latex.
We called our big renovation of 2016 The Kaboom!, and it’s technically still under way, albeit very slowly. But during the deconstruction phase, it released loads of toxic dust into the air, which settled on the ground all around us and all throughout our neighborhood.
We had both of our kids' blood levels tested for lead, and both revealed elevated levels. This rang alarm bells.
Lead Persists As A Current-Day Threat
I see house flippers up and down my streets deconstructing their turn-of-the-century homes and spewing dust into the air, and I wonder if those homes were chockful of lead paint, too. I think about what we’re breathing in every time another buyer wants to transform their old four-square into an open floor plan, so that construction crews have more walls to knock down. And more lead to release into the air.
But even preceding our Kaboom! and that of our neighbors’, as our houses just sat there for a century or longer, lead-tainted paint slowly flaked off, drifting outside and landing in our backyards.
If you live in a similar old neighborhood, or even in a new one where old houses have been torn down and replaced by fancy McMansions, it’s likely your soil is laced with lead, too.
Why should you care?
Lead is a known toxin.
According to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences,"
“Low-level, chronic exposure to lead in contaminated residential soil can cause several developmental and behavioral problems in children. Among these are reduced IQ and attention span, hyperactivity, impaired growth, learning disabilities, hearing loss, and insomnia.”
Even worse, says Real Estate Expert and fellow Reductionist Chip Glennon in his comprehensive guide to detecting and removing lead:
"Extreme exposure could cause:
Further, Glennon warns, "Without prompt care, many of these conditions could be permanent."
Sorry to scare the bejeezus out of you, but fear not, friends. There are feasible, affordable solutions:
We had our soil tested by the experts at Penn State Extension’s Agricultural Analytical Services Lab, who walked us through how to gather samples, submit them, and interpret the results. It was easy and terrifyingly informative.
They explained what normal lead levels are versus those that are dangerous. Up to 150 parts per million and you’ve got nothing to worry about. Up to 400 and you’re at least considered “low.” As long as your levels come back below 1,000, they won’t sound the alarm bells.
Our soil’s lead content hit a staggering 1,133.61 parts per million.
As you might imagine, we kinda freaked out.
Since that number hit the “high” zone (anything over 2,000 is “very high” and should be handled with extreme caution), we were advised not to let our kids or pets come in contact with the entire backyard.
Do you know how much my son loves digging in the dirt? He could remain in heavenly bliss for eight solid hours with nothing but a shovel and a bucket of water to keep him company.
We were also warned not to grow food in that dirt. Lead can creep up through plants’ roots and settle on leaves, or stems and fruits can come in contact with the surrounding contaminated dirt. When we eat those foods, we’re absorbing lead right into our bloodstream.
Knowing the health risks, we were afraid.
Anyone care to guess how quickly Andrew slapped together a pair of raised beds to replace our poisoned garden?
What You Can Do Right Now To Mitigate Risk Of Lead In Your Home & Garden
If you’re eager to get your soil tested and you can’t wait for PSU’s experts to do it for you, try a home lead soil test kit for some preliminary results, but don’t expect a perfect reading.
Otherwise, contact PSU, Colorado State University, Cornell University, or Purdue University, which all have soil testing labs that’ll analyze your samples and walk you through the process.
If you’re ready to build your very own raised garden beds, visit our pals over at Morning Chores to learn all 42 different varieties of garden beds you can slap together yourself in no time.
Just make sure whichever type of wood you choose to build yours hasn’t been treated with any kind of toxic coating!
When those beds are erected and ready to fill with soil, visit your local landscape supply store. Ask for a 50/50 blend of non-contaminated soil + compost, and be sure to buy in bulk—not by the bag—to save yourself a ton of money.
Then you’re ready to start planting! Send me a pic or Instagram one and tag me on it to show off your new garden bed when it’s built, or leave me a comment or question below!
For more information about the dangers of lead in your home, visit Chip Glennon Real Estate Expert's Lead in Your Home: How to Safely Identify Issues and Avoid Exposure.
I'm Janeen; writer, mother, wife, and full-time, radical Reductionist. I share stupid-easy tips on how to save money while reducing your impact on the environment, & I'm committed to helping others live a life of simple sustainability.
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