Lead in Lawns: A Looming Crisis

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Maria Rodale CEO and Chairman of Rodale, Inc. and book author

Last week I read that the White House garden's soil was tested, and they found it contained lead above the safe limits. I know exactly how Michele Obama feels. Twenty years ago--after a few years of putting in vegetable gardens and letting my little daughter play in the dirt--I discovered that my historic urban yard had once been a paint dump. Literally. It's a scary feeling.

Fortunately, I had bought the land from my mother, and she felt obligated to pay for clean up--which involved removing the top 12 inches of soil, and then bringing in new soil to replace it. Men in white safety suits had to do the removal. I could never have afforded to pay for this by myself. And the only other option was to pave everything over.

Since then I have discovered a few more things about lead. First of all, it's most toxic in small doses (although large doses will cause death). The worst effects of low doses are behavioral problems and reduced intelligence.

Second of all, it's everywhere. Between the ubiquitous use of leaded gasoline, the urban use of lead paints, and the agricultural use of lead arsenate as a pesticide for the last 100 years, we are going to have to deal with lead and its lingering impact for a long time. Just because we've banned it in gas and paint doesn't mean it's going to go away.

What to do?

First, get your soil tested so you know just how much you are dealing with. Consider yourself very lucky if you don't find any lead in it. Contact your local extension service for a soil test; they can also tell you the soil's pH, and other things that will help you grow a healthy lawn and garden. Ask about lead specifically, since it may not be part of the standard test. Get your water tested too.

Second, bring in clean soil and put it on top of the leaded soil. At best, you can "encase" the leaded soil with clean soil, and hope that over time the lead will...what? I don't know. I guess stay where it is, or go away.

Third, if you have lead in your soil and want to grow vegetables, either grow them in containers, or create raised beds with clean soil. You can "raise" beds with anything--
rocks, logs, piles of soil--it just means that you are putting good soil on top of the existing soil, with enough depth to grow clean veggies.

Fourth--and this is a long-term strategy--you can make new soil. How do you make new soil? Composting is making new soil. But so is letting your leaves fall, and leaving them there to gradually decompose and make new soil.

Fifth and finally, don't add any more toxins into the environment--because you never know what new problems will be discovered about what we use now. Buy organic foods, use low or no-VOC paint, don't buy cheap toys or purses that were probably made with lead.

The best news for me is that my little daughter is all grown up, and very, very, smart and well-behaved.

The bad news is that after the research I have just done for my upcoming book, I am convinced that we are only just beginning to find out about all the permanent damage that lead and other toxins are doing to our health.

I will keep you posted on all that.

In the meantime, please be careful. And test your soil.

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