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What you need to know about lead in your garden

Flickr user kattebelletje/Flickr
One way to avoid leaded soil when gardening is to put fresh soil in raised beds.

Drinking lead-tainted water is out of the question, as is cooking with it and bathing in it. But what about gardening? Is it safe to water your garden with leaded water through a hose without a filter?

Below is Teresa McLean’s answer. She’s a Flint-based Michigan State University Extension Service educator in community food systems.

McLean said you will not be “appreciably adding” to lead in soil by watering it with lead-tainted water. But that doesn’t mean lead in soil isn’t a concern.

"Fortunately for us, vegetables are not very good at taking up lead."

Lead already exists in some soils across Michigan. McLean said it occurs naturally at low levels, but it also comes from other places – like lead paint on houses and lead remnants from when cars used lead gasoline.

For that reason, McLean said it’s crucial to test for lead in soil before you garden. The EPA’s Hazard Standard for lead in soilsays any lead level below 400 parts per million is safe – and that’s in areas where children play. McLean, however, suggests a 300 ppm limit.

The good news about veggies

When it comes to growing food, even in soil that contains lead, McLean had some good news.

“Fortunately for us, vegetables are not very good at taking up lead,” she said. “When we talk about low-risk vegetables, anything that fruits … like tomatoes, peppers, green beans, corn – if there is any lead uptake at all, it does not get translocated to the fruits, and so those are considered the safest type of vegetable to grow in a garden with elevated lead levels.”

Credit Michigan State University Extension Service and edible flint
McLean said gardening with lead-tainted water should not be a big concern, but here are tips for anyone looking to take extra precaution.

While lead doesn’t typically make its way into vegetables, it can stick to them. That’s why McLean said gardeners should be wary of “soil splash.”

“Soil splash, the soil that gets stuck to our root vegetables or our leafy greens, could be a concern if not washed properly,” she said. “And so we do recommend peeling all root crops and pulling off the outer leafy greens. Of course, here in Flint, we have to wash them thoroughly with filtered or bottled water.”

McLean also suggested that people gardening in soils with elevated lead levels wear gloves and boots when gardening to prevent unnecessary contact with lead.

For more tips, such as adding compost when lead is present in soil, see this handout on Lead Safety for the Home Gardener.