Gardening, Lead Contamination, and Children

The health threat posed by toxic metals was recently brought only too close to home when a group of urban crop raisers discovered a connection between gardening, lead contamination, and children.

| July/August 1981

... if we're letting the lead industry getaway with dangerous pollution, we should do something about the lead industry ..."  — Dr. John Gofman

Some 5,000 years ago, the human race smelted the first lead-silver alloys, and thus began soiling its own nest with the heavy metal. In fact, at the high point in their history, the Romans were using so much lead in pots and aqueducts (indeed, the very word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum) that the toxic element may well have contributed to the downfall of their empire. Yet in spite of the fact that people have long recognized the health dangers of processing and using lead, we now mine and employ an almost astronomical quantity of the metal. (Compare the 80,000 tons of lead produced each year during Roman times to the 3,000,000 tons produced—annually—today!)

Lead is, in short, omnipresent in modern society (the metal has even polluted the polar icecap), and perhaps that's the reason most of us have seemingly forgotten that it exists. We're constantly exposed to the heavy metal in the form of house paints, industrial emissions, exhaust from automobiles, colored ink in all types of printed publications (even including candy wrappers), ceramic glazes, the solder used to seal food cans, old water pipes ... and more.

But a new groundswell of concern about the dangers of lead contamination is beginning to take hold in our country. And the movement was spawned, ironically, by an investigation of one of the least suspected means of human lead ingestion: gardening.

Now you may well be shocked by the notion that growing one's own food—an activity that's come to be symbolic of wholesome, self-reliant living—can actually be hazardous to human health. But don't get too alarmed. Lead toxicity is a problem only in some gardens and for some people (primarily small children), and as we'll explain, the hazard can be identified and dealt with in those instances. However, there is real cause for concern about all the means by which lead finds its way into your own and your children's lives, especially since many other sources of exposure to the toxic element are likely much more significant than is any that can come from a home vegetable plot.

It was a group of gardeners, though, who recently rekindled public awareness of the lead issue, and it's those same horticulturists—members of an organization of community gardeners in Boston, Massachusetts—who are working hard to educate people about the numerous ways (including crop raising) in which families may be exposed to harmful levels of the metal. The purpose of this article, then, will be to share some of what many such health-conscious people have learned, so you can effectively reduce the sources of exposure to lead in your own life.

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