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QUESTION: What is the best and cheapest way to test the soil for lead in an old garden? 12/08/12 New South Wales, Australia

I have a son who lives in an old terrace house in Redfern and grows his own veggies. He lives in a vegetarian household which supplements household food with veggies from the garden. The plot they use was empty when they arrived and while they put good compost into the soil they noticed there was a dead patch where things would not grow too well. Does this suggest contamination? Given that this is a Victorian era house, I am assuming there could have been lead paint removed in a renovation which was dumped in the small area of soil in the backyard.

What is the best and cheapest way to test the soil? Should I advise my son not to grow or eat any more veggies until the testing is done?

I would really appreciate your advice.


ANSWER: Aug 12 2012

Dear Chris,

Yes the dead patch in your son's garden does suggest contamination. And lead is the most common soil contaminant of the industrial era.

I would certainly advise your son and his fellow-householders to ask their doctors for a blood lead test, and to ensure that any vegetables from the garden are well-washed before eating, and sadly, while you are waiting for the soil lead results, I'd recommend peeling any root vegetables - even though we all know that means throwing away the most nutritious layer. [That last piece of advice would be temporary - while waiting for the results.]

Because vegetarians can more easily be iron deficient than omnivores, and because iron deficiency increases the absorption rate of any lead that gets into the gut, I would also recommend that the householders ask the doctor for iron studies - which can be done on the same blood samples as are collected for the lead analysis. This advice particularly relates to menstruating women.

It is apparently quite common for gardens in the inner city areas of Australia (and any older housing areas) to have been used for dumping the ash from backyard fires used to burn rubbish prior to council garbage collection, and for dumping waste oil from vehicles or waste acid from lead acid batteries, as well as for paint waste and other building waste (eg lead headed nails and washers were apparently usually tossed on the ground when roofing iron was replaced), and if there were petrol storage tanks anywhere nearby, the petrol plume from leaks which inevitably develop in underground tanks, can spread for hundreds of metres. Any of these potential sources of lead could be the cause of a "dead-spot" in the garden. I know when I was living in Redfern and studying Botany at Sydney University, I couldn't get anything to grow in the soil at the back of my house - which looked full of paint flakes and heaps of other rubbish. Fortunately, I was able to get the only tree in my street to grow in the front garden. It is now over 10 metres high!

The best and cheapest way to test the soil for lead is by becoming a member of The LEAD Group for $5 (in order to get the kit-purchaser's discount) and then purchasing one of our DIY-Sampling Lead Test Kits and collecting several soil samples - or at least one from the dead-spot and one from a good spot in the vegie patch - and posting them to Sydney Analytical Laboratories, and following the advice you'll receive a week or two later, based on the results.

You are also very welcome to re-contact once your son's household have their blood lead results, and I can give you an interpretation of them and advice on what to do about any that are elevated.

You can phone with your credit card details etc, or fill in the Kit Order Form which also has a tick box for membership.

We really like to see young people growing their own vegies and its excellent that you're looking out for them and finding out how to test to be sure that it is safe to eat the vegies grown in old gardens.

Yours Sincerely

Elizabeth O'Brien

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