Conservationists test residents’ soil for lead levels |
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Ben Schmitt
Allegheny County Conservation District agricultural conservationists Danielle Sheppard, left, and Jon Burgess prepare soil for lead screening at the Grow Pittsburgh Garden Resource Center in East Liberty on Saturday, July 16, 2016. 'Baseline soil lead is typically under 100 parts per million,' said Sheppard. 'Over 300, we start to be worried.'

Lawrenceville couple Steve DeLucia and Stephanie Lardin plan to start an urban garden on their small piece of land.

They envision vegetables and flowers covering their 8- by 11-foot plot.

“Living in the city, we weren’t sure how healthy our soil was, and we wanted to find out,” said Lardin, 33.

Grow Pittsburgh, an urban agriculture nonprofit, and the Allegheny County Conservation District helped the couple get to the bottom of their soil Saturday. For three hours, residents brought dry soil samples to Grow Pittsburgh’s Garden Resource Center in Larimer, where experts used handheld X-ray fluorescence technology to analyze for lead. The testing was free and done within minutes.

From the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis to high levels of lead being found in Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority’s service area, health issues associated with lead have dominated the headlines for more than a year.

Jonathan Burgess, a senior agriculture conservationist at the Allegheny County Conservation District, said lead can end up in vegetables with roots, such as carrots and leafy greens. Additionally, soil-contaminated lead creates dust, and people can track it inside on their feet or get it on their hands. Lead poisoning risk can come through touching and ingesting contaminated soil.

“Even at lower levels in areas where we might not change the way we garden, we still are concerned about kids ingesting and coming into contact with lead,” he said. “The technology for testing has really improved.”

Marisa Manheim, Grow Pittsburgh’s director of community projects, said the majority of soil samples analyzed Saturday passed federal Environmental Protection Agency gardening standards. By noon, about 50 people had stopped by for sampling.

“Our goal was to test for 50 samples, so we exceeded that,” Manheim said. “The plan is that this will be the first of many of these types of events. A lot of people got their soil tested today who otherwise might not have.”

Unfortunately for DeLucia and Lardin, their soil tested high for lead.

“We’re not surprised,” said DeLucia, 38. “But it’s good to know, for sure, and find out how to rectify the problem.”

Possible remediation tactics include raising soil beds and using landscaping fabric to separate old soil from new, Burgess said.

Luckily for Lydia Kramer of Swisshelm Park, her five soil samples tested low.

“I want to do an edible landscaping scheme on my property, and I wanted to make sure everything was perfectly safe,” she said. “My boyfriend and I want to plant a lot of perennial edibles, like berries and other fruits and perennial herbs.”

Kramer was thrilled to learn of the low lead levels.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “We can get started this summer.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991.

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