In my recent post on the dangers of nostalgia I referred to the prevalence of lead in our lifestyles of yore: we used the stuff in house paint, plumbing, metal polish, boot blacking, and even hair dye. It was good! It was useful! It was easy to work with! It gave off a lustrous sheen. Unfortunately, it was also very poisonous, especially for children. We know this now, and while we still struggle to eliminate it from toys made in China and other manufactured goods, we have done a good job of removing it from our gasoline, our house paint (nearly lead-free since 1978), and our new plumbing.
However, this is a legacy that we will probably never outlive—at least not in our old cities. Ever reliable, the stuff is sticking around. Much has been made of its persistence in the interiors of old homes, especially in window sills and other places where paint chips gather. Somewhat less attention has been paid to the fact that it is also in our soil. And because it is the same color as dirt, it is difficult to detect.
As an urban gardener, I have been vaguely aware of this for awhile. Word among those in the know is that if you live in an old city like Chicago, it's safe to assume that you have lead in your soil and therefore a good idea to plant any fruits or vegetables in raised beds. When first establishing my garden, I did plant my vegetables in raised beds. Between labor and materials it cost me a bit of money (about $1000, more than half of which went for the timbers, the hardware, and the new topsoil), but I figured since growing my own food was one of my primary reasons for buying a house, I might as well do it right.
I soon came to feel that my little vegetable patch was very cramped indeed and was eager to fill up the rest of the yard with more vegetables, and even fruits. I had seen a garden I greatly admired that mixed vegetables and herbs right in with flowers. I started great plans for next year to plant the beautiful and also delicious chard and kale in front of the prairie flowers, I planted cucumbers alongside the rudbeckia.
Although my yard is not big by many standards, the lot is 30 feet wide—five feet wider than the basic Chicago lot, and I figured by planting up every square foot I could probably feed myself and a few of my friends for a good five or six months out of the year. This extra five feet shows up along the south side of my house and garage in a lovely side yard that was currently home to a couple of compost piles, some sunflowers, a wheelbarrow, a bathtub, and plenty of weeds.
In my lust for fruit I had decided that the back corner next to my newly-painted garage would be the perfect spot for raspberries, where they might grow as wild and thorny as they wanted without getting in the way. So when I saw organic raspberry plants for sale on Craigslist, and that the seller would deliver them to my house (!) I snapped them up right away: four heritage reds and two purple brandywines.
Only after I had placed the order did I start to remember my concerns about the lead. After all, this was right next to the side of the garage where all the paint had been peeling, exposing the wood to rot. My brother Pete had had to scrape the whole thing down and while he had been quite diligent about the drop cloths, who was I kidding? There was paint in the soil, and it had been flaking off for a good 60–80 years. So I decided to send out a sample for a quick lead test.
How do you get your soil tested? The University of Illinois Extension website has a handy list of soil labs in Illinois and surrounding states. I picked one, A & L Great Lakes Labs, and sifted through the various instructions. It was kind of complicated; these labs exist not just for home gardeners but for farmers, muncipalities, builders, geologists, etc. These folks have a much wider array of concerns than whether to plant raspberries in the yard, and the website reflects this dazzling variety.
I finally determined that I would send in three samples (soil next to the garage, soil next to the house, and soil at the site of my failed apricot tree). I would have all three tested for nutrients (at $15 a pop) and two of three tested for lead ($31 each). This was an unplanned expense, but again, I thought, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right. And after all, I'd already sunk sixty bucks into the raspberries (don't tell my mother); did I really want to steep them in lead? I thought of my darling nieces and nephew, who like to run around in my back yard and who all like to eat raspberries.
I dug up soil from each of the three sites, put it in ziploc bags, and dropped them in the mail. A week or so later I got two fat envelopes in the mail. One held the results of the nutrient tests and the other the results of the lead test. As I opened the latter, I pulled out a brochure entitled "What to Do If You Have Lead in Your Soil" and I thought, this is not good news.
It took a few minutes to figure out how to read the report, but I learned that the two sites had a lead content of about 3700 and 5600 micrograms per kilogram, respectively. These figures were meaningless to me, so I started googling and quickly turned up a few pieces of information:
1) Lead content of soil is typically measured in parts per million (i.e., micrograms per kilogram).
2) Lead contamination is very common in urban soils, but nothing to freak out about—one can safely feed children from food grown in soil with up to 300 parts per million. And if it's only adults, heck, you can go up to 500 ppm!
3) It seemed that some people would consider my back yard a hazardous waste site.
I freaked out. I had lead levels more than ten times the level considered safe for edible plants. Was I being poisoned by my own yard? Would I have to call in a team in hazmat suits to dig it all up? How would I ever pay for that? And, now that I had this information, would I be obliged to disclose it when it came time to sell my house? Was I doomed to lead a permanently leaden existence?