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Citizen science reveals lead in garden soils

Researchers in Newark, New Jersey, found high levels of the neurotoxic metal in urban gardens across the city

by Giuliana Viglione
August 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 34


A scientist collects soil samples in an urban garden in Newark, New Jersey.
Credit: Omanjana Goswami
High lead levels were found in the soils of many urban gardens like this one.

Urban gardening has blossomed across the US as a way to engage and educate communities and to battle food deserts. In many postindustrial cities, however, reclaiming abandoned lots for gardens engenders worries about soil quality. At the ACS national meeting in San Diego last week, researchers revealed high levels of lead in seven gardens across Newark, New Jersey. Despite the widespread use of urban gardens in Newark, said Omanjana Goswami, a graduate student at Rutgers University–Newark who presented the data, there’s “no information on what’s in the soil.” Goswami and her coworkers teamed up with local schools and community groups to collect soil samples, then analyzed them for lead content. All the gardens had detectable lead in their soils; three gardens had at least one sample that exceeded the US Environmental Protection Agency’s lead limit. Most of the lead is due to the city’s legacy of industrialization, including leaded gasoline and factory emissions. But the current water crisis is likely compounding the issue by adding extra lead to already-polluted soils when residents water their gardens. For Goswami, the importance of the work is not just in the scientific results but also in the community engagement it fostered. For each garden tested, the researchers put together a technical report for garden managers with findings and recommendations. “It’s really gratifying to see our knowledge being put to use like that,” she said.


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