Lead poisoning will make you stupid. Lead poisoning will make you violent. Lead poisoning will make you sick. Lead poisoning will ruin children and communities and just might be the main cause and perpetuity of systemic urban poverty in this fair city and our great nation. I mean, it’s not, but I’m willing to accept that it’s possibly more than a tiny part of the problem.
Lead is everywhere in New Orleans. We have a storied history of shitty contractors coming around and half-assedly repairing and remodeling homes, especially post Katrina. In terms of lead and dirt this is significant because painters and such frequently scrape paint off of our old houses and leave the chips and debris on the ground to commingle with our topsoil or children’s faces or whatever. That old paint is often lead paint. At least that old paint was often lead paint until a few years ago. Most of it’s in the dirt now, left to commingle with our plants or our children’s faces or whatever.
Keep your children’s faces out of the dirt. They will grow up violent and stupid if you allow them New Orleanian mud pies. Or they’ll die. Keep their faces out of the dirt if you live in any urban space. That lead is everywhere. However, if you don’t live in an urban space, get your kids faces all up in that dirt. It’s probably really good for them. Beneficial microbes and micronutrients and all that.
So I spoke at a farm to table symposium a few months ago as part of a panel on lead poisoning in the city and growing food in the soil here. I butchered it. In a bad way. I stuttered and disregarded my notes completely and gave halted explanations and three word answers to questions, even though I knew exactly what I was talking about and really didn’t feel particularly nervous or any other such public speaking destructive sensation. I don’t know what happened, but it was bad. This here is my attempt at salvation, one I meant to dish up to the universe way back in August when I failed the world with my words. I hope I can offer recompense unto you as well now with these words.
The poison leaded soil that surrounds us is actually safe for you to grow your food in.
Plants that are grown in leaden soil actually take up only a tiny percentage of the lead found in said soil, less than one percent in most cases. There are certain plants, known to some savvy garden types and/or scientists as heavy bio-accumulators and/or phyto-remediators, which actually take up larger portions of heavy metals and other undesirable elements in your dirt. Food that should be avoided in toxic lead soil because of their magnificent nutrient uptake abilities include mustard greens, vetiver, and lemongrass. That’s about it. Sunflowers are known bio-accumulators as well, but we only eat their seed and as such are safe from death and stupidity.
What’s this about seeds? That tiny percentage of lead that plants take into them from the soil, heavy bio-accumulator or no, it goes into any given plant’s stalks and leaves where it is stored, and never finds its way into the plant’s fruits or seed. This means any vegetable or fruit that you eat that is not a leaf is completely all the way safe. Tomatoes, peppers, avocados, persimmons (they’re gross though), ground cherries, whatever. It’s all safe all the way.
All that said, what one must truly fear when gardening in toxic soil is the loose dirt. The lead is in the dirt and it stays in the dirt. Wash your greens and fruits very well, extremely well, when you are ready to eat. Otherwise you will develop ulcers and murderous tendencies.
Also avoid root vegetables if you are growing in toxic soil. There will be soil particles on your root vegetables no matter what. Nobody has the power to clean all of those little nooks and crannies. Nobody. Just leave them alone.
If you’re still scared of the lead, you can bring the pH of your soil up past 6.5 and the lead becomes pretty much unavailable to plants. Unfortunately this is not ideal for most food plants so you might as well give up and as such I’m not going to tell you how to do it. While a pH higher than 6.5 makes lead unavailable, it also makes it hard for most of your veggies to dredge up other much more exciting and healthy, necessary even, nutrients.
If your still scared of the lead after that, put some cardboard down over your compacted, gross, weed seed infested soil and bring in some fresh healthy dirt. It’s what you should’ve done in the first place anyway silly. It’s pretty cheap and it’s really a lot less work in the long run. If you’re here in New Orleans, you’ve got a few cheap bulk options around town. I’m not going to tell you what they are because brand loyalty or something.
So maybe you are wondering now ‘how do I know if there is lead in my soil?’? And I am wondering now how to grammatically deal with me asking you a question wherein you ask me a question. As per your question, the LSU cooperative extension provides this service for a pittance, I think $12 these days but don’t quote me on that, I didn’t do the research. They will test your soil for lead, arsenic, and all manner of dangerous toxic things very accurately. If you look up something like ‘LSU cooperative extension lead test’ online you will find all you need to know. It’s quick and easy and probably important.
(update, I did the research. Go here: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/en/our_offices/departments/SPESS/ServiceLabs/soil_testing_lab/test_schedule/index.htm#SoilSamples. It’s only $5 to test, you will want to purchase a ‘heavy metal test’.)
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.