Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Dirt

I lost something really important to me yesterday.  I lost my garden, or at least my garden as I've known it for the past 4 years.  No one drove a bulldozer into my backyard or anything, it was much less dramatic than that.  

Since the first year at our house we've been amazed at the garden's soil quality.  Tomatoes grow as high as you can build a tomato cage.  Peppers produce more than a family of 4 can eat or freeze.  The kale keeps us full of iron all year.  And sure, we use organic gardening methods, enrich the soil with compost, rotate our crops, and mulch.  But we just considered ourselves lucky to have soil so black and rich, with worms filling every shovelful of dirt.  

This year I wanted to know just how good our soil was, so I sent a sample off to the University of MN to get it tested for the basics: pH level, organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. And I decided to test for lead.

The soil test form said only to test your soil for lead if you suspected it was contaminated.  I had no reason to suspect this and assumed this was something the city probably tested for anyways. But I wanted to check on it, just in case.

Well, yesterday the results came back with lead levels 6 times higher than the standard level set by the MN state legislature (which are lower than the EPA's levels) and 15% higher than the EPA's standard levels.  They recommend that soil with lead levels above 100 ppm not be used for gardening if there are children helping.  My garden level is 600 ppm.  

Here's a taste of what I'm feeling: Imagine your favorite activity.  Not just a hobby, but something you are passionate about.  Something that gets you in touch with your spirituality and makes you feel alive like nothing else on this earth.  Now imagine that everytime you've done that activity you've been poisoning your children, your partner and yourself.  

Yesterday I was sad and ashamed.  I cried for my garden and all the work we've put into it.  I cried for not knowing if the lead had already affected my family.  I cried for being naive enough to believe that in a polluted world I had my own little safe oasis.  

Today I'm mad.  Erin Brockovich mad.  I'm mad that I've never heard that you should test your soil for lead before even letting your kids play outside.  I'm mad that we've f***ed up our earth so much that people can't even grow food in their own yard without trucking in sterilized soil. I'm mad that either the city doesn't test for residential lead or they don't volunteer the information to the person who owns that land.  How many of you have tested your soil?  Do your kids play outside?  

In a way the garden is still a blessing.  Without it I never would have even considered testing our soil for lead. And hopefully it's not as bad throughout the whole yard as it is in the garden.  

So here are the next steps:
1.  Get blood tests for everyone in the family.
2.  Test other areas of the yard and re-test the garden.
3.  If we have elevated blood levels OR if the 2nd test shows the same level of lead, then we dig up the plants, cover the soil in heavy duty landscaping fabric, build raised beds, bring in clean soil, replant the plants.
4.  If the kids' play area is high, too, we'll cover that with fabric and thickly mulch the whole area. 
5.  We'll enforce strict hand scrubbing rules after playing outside,
 super-duper wash anything that comes in from outside and get serious about the "no shoes in the house" rule.  

Some slight good news is that plenty of plants don't absorb much lead.  And if you have high phosphorus levels, alkaline soil, and high organic matter levels you can further minimize the lead absorption (our soil has all of those).  The main concern is with direct contact with the soil, breathing in the dust, and getting it in your mouth via dirty food or not washing hands properly, though- Not necessarily the food itself.

It looks like a lot of changes are coming to our garden, our yard and our lives.  I feel like someone let all the air out of my hot-air balloon.  Deflated.  How do I tell the kids that they can't play in the dirt?  What kind of messed up message does it send to tell these nature-loving kids that we can't trust our own soil?  Ugh. 

Sorry for the biggest downer of a blog post.  Here's a sexy picture of Mike harvesting the finished compost:  A whole kiddie pool full!  (And notice Hannah in the foreground, waiting for 1/2 rotten apples to roll her way).  You can see a bit of our compost bin here.  It's built out of chicken wire and old pallets from the co-op.

***PS- Maybe don't bring this subject up with me at work or at a party, okay?  I'll probably start crying.  And you wouldn't want that.


Mihl said...

I am so sorry Liz! I can imagine that both losing your garden and worrying about your health must be horrible.
I hope you are okay.

Sanja said...

My gosh, that SUCKS!

I'm so sorry for you. :-(

Jaspreet said...

That is awful. I am so glad that you were vigilent and managed to find the information about lead.

Sarah Elise said...

Lots of hugs.

BJ said...

Liz - so sorry to hear this. Do you have any reason at all to think that another part of your property would have less or none of this? If that's the case, I would test it right away so you can have your garden/spiritual connection this year. It does sound like you minimized the risks with all the organic matter your hubby worked into the soil. Let us know how this all sorts out.

Melomeals: Vegan for $3.33 a Day said...

I am so sorry... it is a HUGE loss... and to think your family was potentially put at risk by the very thing you were doing to ensure their health has to be sooo maddening.

Amy P. said...

Liz, that's terrible. I feel badly for you because you seem really excited about gardening. How does so much lead end up in soil anyway, was the U of M able to give any info about that? It's disturbing, and makes me feel like we should get our soil tested too. Thanks for the tips for prevention.

Catherine said...

Oh Liz, what a big, major bummer. You guys will bounce back from this, though -- I know it! You are so resourceful!

Vegetation said...

Oh no! Liz how absolutely devastating for you! I'm so sorry you have lost your garden and your feeling of being able to have a safe garden :(

I hope you are all okay. Good luck with the tests.

Zoey said...

Hi Liz,

I am so sorry about your garden. I am glad that you got the test though instead of just assuming that everything was fine for years to come. Because of your post I am going to test my own garden- thank you for sharing this with us.

Blake said...

I can only imagine how devastating this is! I am so sorry and I hope y'all are okay.

Liz said...

Thanks for all the support and sympathy, everyone. I'm going to get tested this morning and turn in round 2 of the soil tests. Maybe the front yard is okay?

The sources of lead could be gasoline/petroleum contamination, old lead paint that chipped off in the soil, lots of car exhaust from the highway nearby, or several other things. We may never know unless we can dig up historical documents about what our property was before it was a house.

Al said...

That's just awful. So sorry, Liz.

Whenever I dig in my yard I find broken porcelain plates and glass. What the hell were people thinking? Seriously, previous owners of this house buried plates in their back yard. I mean, come on.

aTxVegn said...

This is just awful. I'm so sorry you have to worry with this.

Kate said...

How incredibly sad. Am I able to live in denial and not do this to my own budding garden? This is the first time I've been to your blog (referred to by The Heavy Table) and I welled up reading it having just planted tomatoes this morning. What part of the city do you live in?

Bex said...

wow, I'm sorry to hear about your garden but it sounds like you have a plan of action. I wouldn't have even thought of this I'm so new to home gardening.

MN_homesteader said...

Sorry to hear about that. We negated the issue from the get go with raised beds and if you build them big/deep enough no black plastic should be needed.
Good luck,

C Sanger said...

I've never read your blog before but I read this post and I mourn for your loss. Are you a renter? There is recourse for lead paint, there should be recourse for leaded soil! If you decide to take action or start a neighborhood group or coalition or anything please do let me know, I'd love to help.

Sophia.Pflieger said...

Thats terrible! I could only imagine how I would feel if I was in your place.
It didn't even cross my mind that lead could seep into soil like that!
I'm sure your family will be fine, and you'll find a way to garden anyway.

trina said...

Wow, I'm so sorry.