Are Your Kids at Risk from Lead in City-Grown Produce?

I am currently about halfway through completion of my Masters in Public Health and I am fascinated and motivated by everything I am learning and doing in the program. According to the website What is Public Health?, this discipline is “the science of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and research for disease and injury prevention.” Basically we look at potential risks to the health of whole populations and try to prevent problems before they occur.

Unfortunately, sometimes the policies and interventions we promote can have unintended consequences. This was brought home to me by two recent news reports about urban gardening that I saw shortly after attending an inner-city community meeting about neighborhood soil lead levels.

After learning from geology professor and lead expert, Gabriel Filippelli, from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, that most urban soil has elevated lead levels, often as much as 2-10 times the levels acceptable for children’s play areas – I was concerned to hear on the local radio that our city has seen great success with recent inner-city gardening initiatives, with produce from these gardens now making their way into local farmers’ markets. While it’s great to see efforts to improve the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, the problem is that soil lead levels in these areas can be dangerously high; particularly if the gardens are in areas with pre-1978 housing, are located near major roads or freeways, or are situated within a few miles of former industrial areas. And the perils of lead in community gardens are not just an issue in my backyard. An article last week in The New York Times reported on a recent New York State Health Department study showing that about half the eggs they sourced from community gardens in the NY boroughs had detectable lead levels.

So What’s the Issue?

High lead levels are toxic to the brain – particularly for young children whose brains are rapidly developing. The damage to the brain from chronic lead poisoning – including reductions in IQ, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating – is permanent.

While much of the lead hazard these days is from residual lead paint in and around older homes, the soil in most urban areas has become permeated with lead over the decades due to our past use of leaded fuel and paints, and any former urban industrial activity. As a result, digging around in or eating food grown in city soil can potentially increase your family’s lead exposure. This becomes an even bigger concern if you shop at local farmers’ markets that may be sourcing produce from city gardens.

What Can We Do?

Getting the soil in your yard tested is a good place to start to determine your own risks – for your garden and your family. Many local health departments, university research centers and private labs will do soil tests for reasonable fees. However, if you know you have high lead levels – or are just concerned about the possibility – there are efforts you can make to reduce the hazard, including where you locate your garden, mulching, and creating raised garden beds with clean-sourced topsoil. The National Gardening Association provides a good overview of precautions you can take. An Australian website, Lead Action News, also provides good advice on dealing with lead contamination.

If you are worried about produce in local farmers’ markets, ask sellers about out the source of their fruits and vegetables. Are any of the gardens located within city – or even suburb – boundaries? What steps have been taken in these gardens to minimize lead contamination? If they can’t provide you with these details, then you may want to avoid buying produce that tend to absorb more lead from both soil and city air – such as root crops and leafy vegetables. The box below, from Lead Action News, gives an overview of lead absorption across different types of crops. And for crops that have low lead uptake, be sure to carefully clean all soil from the produce before storage and use.

HIGH uptake of lead: Lettuce, Spinach, Carrot, Endive, Cress, Beetroot

MODERATE uptake: Onion, Mustard, Potato, Radish

LOW uptake: Corn, Cauliflower, Asparagus, Celery, Berries

VERY LOW uptake: Beans, Peas, Melon, Tomatoes, Fruit, Paprika


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