Plant a seed. Give it water. Let the sun shine. Watch it grow. This process amazes me every time.
Organic gardening has become a part of our family culture. Shoveling soil, planting seeds, watering plants, harvesting and enjoying the fruits of our labor is a family affair from the time our babies can sit unassisted and run their fingers and toes through the dirt.
But how safe is that dirt? Could toxic lead be lurking in the soil our children play in every day?
We moved into a new home six months ago and quickly began planning our vegetable garden. This will be the third garden we have built from scratch, and we’ve learned valuable lessons with each new garden.
A few weeks ago, my husband ordered some parts for our irrigation system. This is our first time putting in a brand new system all on our own.
When the parts for our irrigation system came in the mail, there was a large warning label on one of the boxes that the item contained lead. Alarm bells went off, and we immediately returned the double check valve and found a lead-free version instead.
This week, we needed another metal component to the system (a wye valve) so I visited a local irrigation supply store to find a lead-free version. I called six stores before finding this one that said they had the part. They actually didn’t have a lead-free version, but they were extremely helpful. They were baffled about why I wanted a lead-free version and said that nobody had ever requested it before.
I spent about an hour at the supply store, and I was the only household consumer as most of the business was from landscape companies. That got me thinking about our previous irrigation systems that almost certainly included parts that contained lead.
Unless you have specifically requested lead-free parts or have replaced the metal components yourself, I think it is reasonable to assume that almost all professionally installed irrigation systems will contain lead.
So many of us take great care to reduce toxins in our home environment. We choose organic and local food, avoid plastic in the kitchen, buy wooden toys, use natural cleaning products and even go to great lengths to grow our own food. We avoid the use of GMO seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides in our garden to provide the healthiest food possible for our families, but the water giving these plants life could be poisoning our own children.
Is it really a big deal?
The research on lead is pretty clear. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no safe amount of lead exposure for children. Children ages 6 months to 6 years are at the greatest risk for lead exposure and poisoning.
There is also a lot of science that lead from an irrigation system wouldn’t affect the nutritional content of the actual vegetables grown in a garden; the concern would be lead on the plants and in the soil, which could be a non-issue for some. Washing produce thoroughly and wearing gloves could easily mitigate much of the potential hazard.
But I have three small children who love to dig in the dirt with their bare hands and constantly swipe tomatoes right off the stem for a snack; how can I take a risk with any amount of lead exposure?
What can you do?
The best way to learn about whether your soil or water has been contaminated is to test it. The Oregon State University Extension has a great pamphlet “Reducing Lead Hazard in Gardens and Play Areas” that offers a great summary of the risks of lead exposure and goes into detail on how to collect quality samples and assess the results along with more information about how to deal with contaminated soil.
If I was living in a house with an existing irrigation system, I would examine the metal components and contact the manufacturer if necessary to determine whether lead is present and make the switch to lead-free versions as soon as possible.
Even if you don’t water your garden with an irrigation system, lead and toxic chemicals are still a potential risk depending on what garden hose you use. Eartheasy has some excellent tips for reducing toxins related to garden hoses like choosing a lead-free hose, storing the hose in the shade and letting stored water run before spraying it on the vegetable garden.
I am not a scientist or a researcher or any kind of expert. I’m just a mom who wants what’s best for my family, and for us, that means fighting for a lead-free garden.
Do you worry about lead and other toxins contaminating your garden? I’d love to hear about your garden or potential risks you’ve found.