Lead concerns for home gardeners: Mitigating risk

Gardeners concerned with lead contamination in their soil can minimize the risk of exposure and be safe while enjoying their landscape.

Reducing access to bare soil is one of the best ways to minimize lead exposure. This can be done with mulch, rocks or grass. Photo by Abi Saeed.
Reducing access to bare soil is one of the best ways to minimize lead exposure. This can be done with mulch, rocks or grass. Photo by Abi Saeed.

Lead naturally occurs in small quantities in the soil. Additional factors such as pollutants and lead contaminated products can increase the concentration of this highly toxic metal to levels that can be hazardous. Irrigation with lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, water did not show a significant increase in soil lead levels, but the lead already present in soils can persist for long periods of time. It is important to consider previous land use in your gardening plans.

If you are not sure what was on or near your garden site previously, Michigan State University Extension recommends getting your soil tested. Residential areas with historic lead paint use, industrial areas and high-traffic roadsides potentially have increased soil lead levels. In undisturbed soils, concentrations are generally highest in the top 3 inches of the soil surface. This risk is not only present with vegetable gardening in high-lead soils, but is also a concern to gardeners with landscape beds.

The concern with lead-contaminated gardens is primarily about contact and inhalation of the soils. The risk is greater in areas with higher lead concentrations, so it is important to get your soil tested to have a better understanding of the lead levels in your garden. Children have a much higher risk of being affected by lead, and the neurological effects can sometimes be severe. So regardless of whether you are growing a food garden, an ornamental garden, planting trees or working on the soil, the right precautions should be taken to reduce your risk of exposure.

If you are a gardener and lead contamination is a concern in your area, you can minimize the risk of exposure to you and your family by taking the following precautions.

General precautions

  • Get your soil tested. If you purchase MSU Extension’s convenient soil test kit through the MSU Extension Bookstore, be sure to specifically state you need a lead test for your soil since this is not a standard component of the basic test.
  • Increasing your soil pH to a level between 6.5 and 7.5 can minimize the availability of lead to plants.
  • Organic matter is particularly good at holding on to lead, so as you increase soil organic matter, you decrease the amount of “available” lead in your soil. This also reduces the likelihood of fine soil particles carrying lead that can easily be trapped on clothing, skin or inhaled.
  • Mulch any bare soil to prevent lead contaminated soil dust from drifting onto other plants and garden surfaces.
  • When gardening, make sure to wear gloves.
  • If lead inhalation from soils is a concern, wear a mask to protect yourself and your children while gardening.

For a food garden

  • Depending on your results, choose suitable items to grow.
  • Vegetables do not readily uptake lead, but exposure to lead contaminated soil on the surface of leafy and root vegetables is the primary concern in high lead soils.
  • Remove soil particles and dust from vegetables. Make sure to peel your root vegetables, remove the outer layers of leafy vegetables and wash any fruit and vegetables thoroughly in clean, filtered water.
  • Do not grow edible produce if soil lead levels exceed the recommended guidelines. Cover up the soil and create a raised bed with fresh uncontaminated soil for produce, especially root vegetables and leafy greens.
  • Although uncommon, plants grown in high-lead soils have the potential to accumulate lead in their roots. Avoid composting root crops that have been grown in high lead conditions with poor soil quality. This can contaminate your compost pile.

For an ornamental yard and garden

  • If lead levels in your soil are above the EPA’s recommended 300 ppm, prevent children from playing or gardening in that soil, and do not leave bare soil accessible.
  • Allocate a specific play area for children with a sand box or covered substrate to minimize exposure to soil. Keep this area away from old painted buildings.
  • Use a dense layer of sod in your yard and keep kid’s play areas away from bare soil.
  • Avoid tracking soil into your home.

Unless you dilute your soil or amend it, there is very little you can do to reduce the concentration of lead in your soil. Therefore, it is important to take the appropriate measures to protect yourself and your children from the risks associated with lead exposure.

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