Lead and Gardening
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Why is lead in soil a problem?
Lead can harm everyone, but even very small amounts of lead can harm children. Some of the health effects of lead for children include lowered IQ, increased risk for Attention Deficit Disorder, and behavioral problems. Children can be exposed to lead from garden soil if they play in the garden or eat fruit or vegetables grown in the soil. Children can also be exposed if soil from the garden gets into the home. This can happen if shoes worn in the garden are brought inside or if pets play in the garden and then go inside the home. Only a blood test can tell if a child has been exposed to lead.
Growing food at home is a great way to save money, improve nutrition, and teach children about the environment. Following the steps in this fact sheet can help protect your children from lead in garden soil.
How could lead get in my garden?
Some neighborhoods in Minnesota are more likely than others to have an unsafe level of lead in the soil. Neighborhoods in urban areas, near major roadways, or near factories that used lead for manufacturing are more likely to have high levels of lead in the soil. If you live in a home built before 1978, there might be high levels of lead near your home’s foundation, where paint chips may have fallen. You cannot tell if there is lead in your soil without having it tested by a laboratory.
Do fruits and vegetables absorb lead from garden soil?
It depends on the kind of plant and the quality of the soil. While some plants absorb very little lead, others absorb more. Whether plants absorb lead also depends on the quality of the soil, such as the soil’s acidity, level of phosphorus, and the amount of organic material (manure, compost, etc.) in the soil. You cannot remove soil absorbed by a plant. However, carefully washing all of the food you grow can help remove any soil on the outside of the plant. Peeling or removing the outer leaves of plants can help too.
The University of Minnesota recommends not growing fruits and vegetables in soil where the amount of lead is above 300 parts per million. A laboratory can tell you if the lead in your soil is above this level. The University of Minnesota Extension Service can give you information about laboratories in your area that offer testing. Find your local Extension Service office online at: University of Minnesota - About Extension.
If my soil has a high level of lead, how can I grow food safely?
If a laboratory analyzes your garden’s soil and the soil contains more than 300 parts per million of lead, you have several options to protect your family from lead exposure. These options are also a good precaution if you are not sure if your soil contains an unsafe level of lead.Create a New Garden
- Grow your garden in store-bought soil. You can create a new garden by laying down plastic sheeting and setting up a frame before adding new soil. This will prevent your plants from absorbing lead from the soil in your yard. OR
- Move your garden to an area of your yard further from your home or other painted buildings. Usually, the highest levels of lead are found near a home’s foundation, where paint chips have fallen.
- Mix store-bought soil into your garden soil. This will help reduce the concentration of lead in the soil, but will not remove the lead.
- Add organic matter to your soil (manure, compost, etc.). This is a very effective way to prevent plants from absorbing lead from soil.
- Make sure your soil’s acidity is above a pH of 6.5. Plants grown in soil above this pH absorb less lead. You can buy a kit to test your soil’s acidity at most garden or hardware stores. If the pH of your soil is below 6.5, adding ground limestone to soil will slowly raise the pH.
Tips for All Gardeners
- Keep children and pets out of the garden and all bare soil areas if you live in an urban area, near a major roadway, or your home was built before 1978.
- Do not bring the shoes you wear while gardening inside your home.
- Wash the clothes you wear while gardening separate from your family’s other laundry.
- If your home was built before 1978, be careful when you do outside renovation. Cover the ground where you are working to prevent lead paint from getting into the soil. Use water to keep the paint you are disturbing wet, and do not use power tools to remove paint. This will prevent lead paint dust from getting into the air and soil.
- If your home was built before 1978, any contractor you hire to do work that will disturb lead painted surfaces must be a certified Lead Safe Firm. A list of all certified firms is available at: Locate Certified Renovation and Lead Dust Sampling Technician Firms.
How can I get more information?
For more information about lead, contact the Lead Program at the Minnesota Department of Health:
More information about lead and gardening is available at the following websites: