As the growing season comes to a close and gardeners exchange their gardening gloves for mittens, Environmental Health Perspectives has released a report which highlights issues of contamination and remediation surrounding urban gardens and environmental health risks associated with industrialized and poorly regulated landscapes. Urban Gardening: Managing the Risks of Contaminated Soil uses Boston as a case study to illustrate how the oftentimes government-supported initiative to grow local, organic food in urban settings comes with its own set of risks and rewards.
The city of Boston spends 300,000 dollars annually to build and maintain more than 175 gardens across the city. More than 3,500 local families harvest 1.5 million dollars of produce each year from these urban gardens. While Boston may seem like an exception in the world of urban agriculture, it is indicative of a trend throughout the U.S. In 2012 35% of households grew food, spending 3.3 billion dollars on materials. While information on gardening is not abundant more than a million households participated in community gardens, a figure that has certainly increased since the last National Garden Association count in 2008.
The resurgence in interest in gardens since the phasing out of WWI/II- era Victory Gardens comes with new environmental costs including the threads of elevated lead levels, the thread of arsenic, and elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other contaminants. Oftentimes these gardens are constructed over former industrial sites which may contain contamination. Pressure-treated wood or creosote-soaked railroad ties are often reclaimed and used as dividers between plots. Each of these ostensibly innocuous pieces of wood can laden gardens with arsenic or PAHs which can dramatically impact the health of those who work in and eat from these gardens. Adjacent homes, which are not often tested when these gardens are initially built, can pose threats as well. Homes may be covered in lead-paint which eventually flakes and finds its way into soil, have oil leaks, or asbestos. While these all pose a serious threat to health, lead is considered the most dangerous because of its strong links to cognitive, motor, behavior and physicals problems.
In cultivating an urban garden you should be vigilant in testing soil before cultivation and regularly at different points in the year. Purdue offers a resource guide for urban gardeners. The EPA offers limited testing facilities as do local environmental and health departments. Universities offer soil testing to individuals and groups at lower rates allowing for more samples to be tested for a wide range of contaminants. Check out the University of Massachusetts’ soil testing lab, Cornell’s testing site and CUNY Brooklyn’s site. As the interest in urban gardening continues, make sure to discuss and plan for possible contaminants with others in your community or co-op!