Lead in the Garden
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Lead is a metal that can be found naturally in the environment but also exists at higher levels due to human activity. Lead is still mined, but in the U.S., most lead is recovered from lead-acid batteries. Paint and gasoline no longer contain lead, but these past uses are major sources in urban settings.
Summary for gardeners
- Garden-related lead exposure is generally low and there are simple steps you can take to limit exposure.
- Unless you have unusually high levels of lead in your soil, most of your lead exposure likely comes from non-garden sources like lead paint and drinking water.
- No amount of lead exposure is considered safe, but it is important to remember that there are many health benefits to home and community gardening.
Sources of lead exposure
Lead exposure can occur in the garden, but non- garden sources including lead paint and drinking water are likely bigger concerns. Still, urban
Once lead is in the environment, we can be exposed in a few different ways. Below are some of the main sources that release lead into the environment.
How might I be exposed? Gardeners and children can be exposed to lead by eating contaminated soil particles or produce, and by handling or breathing in contaminated soil particles.
Are my garden plants safe to eat? In general, plants do not take up much lead from contaminated soil, so washed produce is probably not a major source of exposure. One study found that herbs tend to have the highest lead levels, followed by root vegetables, leafy greens, and finally fruits.
Should I be worried? Garden-related lead is likely a small portion of a person’s overall lead exposure. However, reducing or limiting exposure to lead in the garden is still important, especially for children.
Limit Children’s Exposure
Making sense of regulatory standards
There is no accepted safe level of lead exposure. There are standards for soil lead levels in residential and play areas, but no specific limits for garden soils. The guidelines below can help you contextualize the lead levels in your garden soil.
Health impacts of lead
Children are most at risk from lead exposure because it is a developmental neurotoxin and it can harm developing brains. Lead exposure is linked to many health problems such as impacts on learning and behavior, lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, and anemia. At high levels, lead can damage the heart and kidneys and may cause miscarriages.
Our bodies use lead in the same way they use calcium, so it tends to be stored in bones and teeth. This stored lead may be released later in life, causing secondary lead exposure. Lead can also be released during pregnancy, where it can expose the fetus.
Reduce lead exposure in the garden
- Adding compost or other organic matter from a contaminant-free source may help limit lead uptake by plants. Check the NC Composting Council website to find STA or OMRI certified compost.
- Aim for soil pH between 5.0 and 7.5 to reduce bioavailable lead (the form of lead absorbed by the body) in soil.
- To reduce lead particles in the air from dust, cover bare soil with mulch and keep the soil moist.
- Thoroughly wash and/or peel produce grown in lead-contaminated soil.
- If your soil lead levels are high, consider installing raised garden beds and replacing the top 1-2 inches of soil each year with compost.
- Conduct soil safety training for all garden users on exposure reduction strategies.
- Visit the Duke Superfund Community Engagement: Gardens website and review the factsheet on 10 Healthy Garden Habits.
For more information
Still have questions about lead soil testing?
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This factsheet was created by the Duke University Superfund Research Center’s Community Engagement Core with the goal of helping garden managers, Extension agents, Master Gardeners, and home gardeners identify, understand, and manage risks associated with chemical contamination that may be present in garden soils. This work was supported through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences P42 Multiproject Center Grant program, grant number P42ES010356.