Lead-Safe Gardening in Oakland Soil

A recent report by Reuters on dangerously high lead levels in children in many areas of the country surpassing Flint, Michigan, has gone viral, including this article in the East Bay Times. The Fruitvale District of Oakland was named as one of those areas.  

While Flint's issues have to do with the pipes that carry drinking water, Oakland's lead issues (from a gardening perspective) have to do with lead levels in soil. Safe gardening practices will reduce the risk of exposure to soil borne lead in the food you grow.  Check out the excellent article in Edible East Bay for more information.   Here are some of the recommendations from the article:

  • Get your soil tested. The Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program’s website and has links to both a directory of certified assessors as well a list of accredited labs, including costs and other information: achh.org/leadpoisoning/testing.htm
  • Make/add compost to your soil. This will help raise your soil pH (ideally to pH 6.5–7.5), making it less acidic and minimizing the solubility of lead. In addition, organic matter will bind with the lead in your soil, making less of it available to you or your plants.
  • Remediate your soil with a high phosphate fertilizer such as fish bones or bone meal on an annual basis. Lead readily binds with phosphorus to create pyromorphite, a compound that is not readily bioavailable.
  • Add a layer of mulch to your soil. Mulch will have the same effects as compost, plus it will provide a physical barrier between bioavailable lead and your plants, shoes, and small hands.
  • Plant a groundcover to provide a barrier between you and the soil.
  • Grow ornamentals or crops offering edible fruit and/or seeds, since these parts will not accumulate significant concentrations of lead.
  • Always wash anything from your garden before you eat it. Greens may not contain lead in their tissues, but lead can splash up onto them when you water your garden. Always peel root crops. Consider filling one raised garden box with clean topsoil to host your roots crops.
  • Practice basic hygiene. This includes frequent washing of hands, tools, toys, and other items that come in contact with dirt. Vacuum regularly and take your gardening shoes off outside.
  • Repair/replace any peeling paint frequently and do so pursuant to local regulations. Remove any scrap metal that might contain lead—such as old lead pipes, roof flashing, and batteries—and safely dispose of them.

Stop by Pollinate for more great gardening tips, and subscribe to our Newsletter for notification of our next Lead-Safe Gardening workshop.