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Lead in soil can be hazardous

Published: Thu, July 5, 2018 @ 12:00 a.m.

Q. My soil test for lead came back with a level above 100. What does this mean? Should I be worried?

Angela from Youngstown

A. For the most part, lead is a concern around areas where homes were tore down or around the edges of existing homes that are older. Lead paint is the source, as many homeowners repainted windows and window frames each year to keep the house looking good and the wood free from rot. They scraped off paint each year, thus contaminating the soil with lead.

As homes were tore down, the soil was left in place and the hole left by the basement was usually just filled in. The result is contaminated soil. The concerns relating to lead are inadvertent ingestion by working in the soil in these areas. Children, especially, are prone to playing in the soil and thus getting it in their mouths and breathing the dust.

For you, the good news is that it is only elevated, just above the EPA limit, according to Rutgers University. Penn State calls this level “none to very low.” At this level, most factsheets state that the level is below an action limit, but strategies should always be followed to protect children’s health.

The first strategy is testing children for lead if they have been playing in exposed soil areas around where houses have been torn down. Next, do not allow children to play in soil in these areas. Children shouldn’t walk in that area in bare feet. Planting perennial shrubs and trees, then mulching over top of the soil will reduce exposure by not allowing the soil to blow up into the air as dust. Limit tilling of the area (again, a dust issue). If you must till and prepare soil, keep the soil moist and mulch it as soon as possible to reduce the amount of dust created.

Rutgers says you can grow vegetables in low risk areas such as this (areas below the 400 ppm level). You should know that high levels of lead are generally found in leafy green type vegetables, though. Thus, fruiting vegetables may be the best bet because they pose the lowest potential risk, including tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and squash. Complete details of minimizing risks are on this factsheet: http://go.osu.edu/leadtest.

As noted in the Penn State fact sheet and in the one below from Wisconsin, raising phosphorus levels can help bind lead. This makes it less available for absorption by the body. Saying this, phosphorus levels should be checked regularly to stay in the acceptable range. Raising phosphorus levels too high can bind up other nutrients and contaminate surface waters. Learn more about phosphorus and lead at http://go.osu.edu/lowerexposure.

Eric Barrett is OSU Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources in Mahoning County. Call the office plant and pest clinic at 330-533-5538 to submit your questions. Regular clinic hours are 9 a.m. to noon Mondays and Thursdays.

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