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Reporter Karen Kelly and her daughter, Hannah, gather soil from their garden to be tested for toxins.
Reporter Karen Kelly and her daughter, Hannah, gather soil from their garden to be tested for toxins.

Hidden danger in the garden

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All over the region, first-time gardeners are harvesting their ripe tomatoes and leafy greens. Karen Kelly is one, but as a veteran reporter, she dug a little deeper and found a hidden danger in the dirt.

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Transcript: Karen Kelly, September 25, 2009

All over the country, first-time gardeners are harvesting their ripe tomatoes and leafy greens. Gardening - especially in cities - is thriving. But Karen Kelly reports on a hidden danger that isn't always easy to detect:

(sound of little girl in garden)

It's our first vegetable garden and my daughter and I are looking for some ripe veggies to have for dinner.

It was the highlight of our summer - planting the cucumbers and the eggplant and watching the tomato vines grow higher and higher until we couldn't even reach the top.

Then I read a story that they had discovered lead in the White House vegetable garden. Exposure to too much lead can cause brain damage, especially in children. And as I read the description of the type of yard that would likely contain lead, I realized that our garden met all of the criteria.

We live in a house more than 50 years old. It's in an older neighborhood that would have been exposed to residue from leaded gasoline. And we live in a fairly large city -Ottawa, Canada - near a busy road.

So I decided to get our soil tested for lead.

(sound of phone call)

I started by calling the city and other government agencies- no luck. I tried looking for labs in the yellow pages. Those didn't work out. I moved on to garden centers, a local university, and a local research farm. No one could talk to me.

Finally, I got in touch with a lead expert in Indianapolis, Indiana. He asked me to send him some samples in plastic lunch bags.

"Okay, I just scraped off a place with no wood chips. Okay, so we tested the eggplant, the tomatoes, the lettuce and the cucumbers. Well, we need to do the peppers too, because the peppers are way over here."

I sent the bags to Gabriel Fillipelli at Indiana University-Purdue University - and waited impatiently. Ripe tomatoes and cucumbers were piling up.

Finally, he got back to us.

"What I found with the samples you took from your soil was relatively high lead values. I was a little bit surprised. Some of them were actually above the EPA levels for playground soils, which is 400 parts per million."

Great. I figure there's no chance we could eat these vegetables. But Fillipelli says that's not the case.

"The other vegetables, like the cucumbers, the eggplants, and peppers - they have very resistant outer skin so as long as you wash them well, very little lead can absorb inside those. The biggest risk you find with vegetables is not lead being sucked up by the roots and poisoning you, it's actually the soil particles that cling on to the some of these vegetables, meaning beets or carrots or potatoes or, strangely enough, lettuce."

In terms of children, Fillipelli says the real problem is letting them play in the bare dirt. He actually says covering it with grass or mulch would be safer.

But that doesn't mean you can't grow vegetables in a city. You can use containers, or build raised beds with clean soil, and use mulch in between.

It's still a cheap source of healthy food, and a great way to teach kids about nature, biology and, unfortunately, pollution.

For The Environment Report, I'm Karen Kelly.

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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