Living in a toxic waste dump
March 27, 2009 7:05 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend. She got her soil tested and the lead levels are at a toxic, and in fact, illegal level. It's a rental, and the whole building was planning a community garden in the yard. Now they're not so sure.

Here's the details:

Total Lead: 1317 ppm (HIGH)

Here’s what the documents provided by the UMass-Amherst Soil Testing Lab had to say about lead levels:

* Normal range is 15-40ppm
* Values above 300ppm are potentially dangerous to people
* Total lead levels higher than 1000ppm are LEGALLY HAZARDOUS

So the yard behind the apartment building is a hazardous waste site. What should they do about this?

Who should they tell? City, Landlord, other tenants, neighbors with small kids?

What should be done with the soil in the backyard?

* Options: Truck it away to a hazardous waste site; Leave the soil in place but cover it with purchased topsoil (There was a topsoil/compost delivery scheduled, but if the backyard soil should be removed then piling clean soil on top of it would not be helpful); Abandon all plans of gardening there; Plant only decorative plants and wear gloves when working with soil; Ignore the problem and plant vegetables there anyway.
posted by nax to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Yes, tell the landlord and inquire with the testing agency about who else should be notified, or who you should make sure the landlord notifies. I wouldn't worry about removal/refill now, that's a whole other problem and won't be determined by renting tenants. Say goodbye to any hopes of a garden for the immediate and possibly long term future.
posted by Science! at 7:14 PM on March 27, 2009

I woiuld definitely avoid planting anything in that soil.

Go get some cheap 18-gallon Rubbermaid containers and make homemade Earthboxes. Earthboxes are heavy-duty and productive and you won't have to worry about lead OR soil-borne diseases.

I would definitely the city and everyone that you possibly can - that's an outrageous contamination level.
posted by Ostara at 7:18 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

In addition to trucking out the soil, maybe do a season or two of phytoremediation? like with Sunflowers?
They seem to be very good at soaking up a bunch of hazmats. just don't go feeding people or small furries with the seeds.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:47 PM on March 27, 2009

I live in a town which was a shipbuilding area for more than 200 years, and so the soil is just full of lead from old red-lead paint that used to be applied to ships' hulls. The town recommends all gardens be raised-bed gardens with a separator layer between garden soil and ground. This Boston Globe article mentions that lead isn't at all uncommon in urban areas and comes down on the side of raised beds. I find them a lot easier to cultivate, too.
posted by Miko at 7:55 PM on March 27, 2009

It probably wouldn't hurt to get a few more random samplings of the soil before you go making any accusations. Tests are generally accurate but mishandling of samples can occur. Sometimes an anomaly can be found which doesn't give a representative profile of the entire area. A site that has been a residential forever should not have high levels of lead even if some exterior paint was chipped away during renovations.

A toxic soil can be handled in different ways besides costly removal. Sometimes something as simple as capping it and then filling clean soil on top of it can be accomplished. It depends on the site and a professional should be called in to make that determination. A professional should be brought in to make testing as well. All that aside you still can make a safe garden by laying down thick mil plastic and creating a raised bed with clean topsoil.
posted by JJ86 at 8:06 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Martha Stewart had a segment on salad tables. Basically, make a table frame out of two by fours.staple fine mesh to the bottom. Fill with dirt you know is ok. Plant salad greens. Plans are probably on her website.

I grow potatoes in tubs and then dump them out at the end of the year. (instead of digging for the potatoes)
posted by cda at 8:18 PM on March 27, 2009

A site that has been a residential forever should not have high levels of lead

They really can. Some of the most contaminated sites are in densely built urban areas where lead paint was used for decades. One of my friends worked in an EPA lead-education program years ago - it was a fulltime job traveling to neighborhoods all over the city to talk to people about how full of lead their soil was and what to do about it.

Here's something from the MN Cooperative Extension on dealing with lead soils around the home and garden.
posted by Miko at 8:19 PM on March 27, 2009

The garden is not the issue. Previous responders have described the ways to grow plants separated from the yard.

The issue, as I see it, is kids. Children under the age of, say, six should not be allowed to play in this yard. The chance of eating dirt presents too high a risk.
posted by yclipse at 8:34 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Report this to municipal authorities. The landlord will be responsible for mitigation (possibly paid by insurance). This will probably take the form of scraping off the top N inches of soil and resodding. A neighbor of ours just had to do this as a condition for taking a city reno loan. It actually isn't that expensive as the scraping is something an end-loader can do in five minutes.
posted by dhartung at 11:45 PM on March 27, 2009

Wow. To put that kind of contamination into perspective, you could cast a bullet from one shovelful of dirt.
posted by ryanrs at 12:08 AM on March 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also, your friend should be ready to scream loud and long about this. This is the type of issue that can get bogged down in minutia. I wrote legal memos for a group of administrative law judges for a while, and there was no end to the discussion of New Jersey's lead abatement laws/regulations. Is it a common area? Is it owner-occupied? Has it been certified recently? Is it Tuesday? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Best of luck.
posted by greekphilosophy at 12:19 AM on March 28, 2009

Before I did too much I'd go with a retest. Multiple points in the yard at multiple depths. I might even consider resampling the initial spot and sending that to a different lab. This let's you rule out a false positive and gives you a better idea of the situation. Is the whole lawn really like that, or was a sample taken from a uniquely contaminated spot?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:29 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming that your friend is in Massachusetts, since that's where the testing was performed. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health would be a good place to start to get some of this information, and the MDPH State Lab can perform soil lead testing. Check out their page with info on lead, including a FAQ and lead law regs. They also have a section where you can find an inspector, private risk assessor, or deleader.
posted by macska at 5:32 AM on March 28, 2009

My Mom's subdivision had this done to a lot of yards a couple years ago. An environmental company will come and scrape off the top layer of dirt, possibly put down a barrier, (depending on how far down the contamination goes) and re-sod. But if it's at legally hazardous levels, the government needs to know. They will inform the neighbors, and test surrounding soil.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:40 AM on March 28, 2009

Lead in gas used to get into the air, and land in soil, as well as lead from paint, carried into soil by rain and flaking. At my old I dug up the soil with lead levels not as bad as yours, moved it to an area that needed some filling in, and planted grass. I put in 12 inches of fresh soil in the garden area.

Talk to the Cooperative extension Service; they'll be in the phone book. They are a treasure trove of advice on soil and gardening.
posted by theora55 at 2:49 PM on March 28, 2009

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