What do you do when you find out your home you just moved into has a lead water line and traces of lead in the soil? For the water, you can put in reverse osmosis, dig out the line and replace it or just using a good ol’ fashioned water filter.
But for the soil, other than scraping away the first 5 feet of topsoil and replacing with “clean” dirt (a cost prohibitive venture), what’s a budding gardener to do?
After checking Google, I found a term that intrigued me, phytoremediation. According to Melinda Meyers, the Plant Doctor, “Phytoremediation is basically the idea of growing plants that will absorb unwanted chemicals out of the soil so that you’re removing the problem with a plant that then has to be disposed of properly.”
So I can plant a plant and just let it take care of the problem until I have to dispose of the plant? Well, not so fast. Meyers says “Lead is so different than some of those other heavy metals. And what they’re finding is it’s not as effective as many of the earlier articles and research have said.”
There is another option though. It’s called phytostabilization. “…and that basically means how do we tie up the lead in the soil so that it stays in the soil so it’s not absorbed through the plants, and how can we maintain it so that it doesn’t become dust?” says Meyers.
Because that’s one of the ways we can ingest lead is thru the air or eating a vegetable not cleaned well enough. Little kids are at risk too as they play outside. They may get dirt on their hands or in their mouths.
“Fortunately, those of us who have struggled with high pH soils, here in S.E. Wisconsin, those with lots of clay, the lead tends to be tied up in the soil. With the stabilization approach, they suggest that people add compost or organic matter to the soil. Again, that tends to tie the lead up and so that it’s not available to the plant.” explains Meyers.
So we’re trying to contain the problem instead of eliminate it, since lead is so tricky to get rid of. You should also keep the soil covered with ground cover like grass or mulch.
Ornamental plants, like winter cabbage are another option besides sunflowers, which are known to take up heavy metals from the soil.
If you’re wondering if you have this problem, there are various options for testing. The city of Milwaukee health department as well as the University of Wisconsin Extension soil testing services will test for lead in your soil as well as tell you exactly where to get the samples to get the best test results.
It may seem complicated or daunting being told you may have lead in your soil but it seems like something manageable and worth the effort when it comes to your health.