Healthy Urban Gardens: Current Projects and Research Addressing Soil Contamination and Urban Gardens

On April 24th CHE, along with our partners at Boston University Superfund Research Program, hosted the call Healthy Urban Gardens: Your Soil Health and You. You can find the full call recording on CHE’s website.

Two of the call’s speakers, Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta and Dr. Martin, talk further about their respective work on contaminated soil and urban gardening in this post.

Please be certain to see (below) the call for responses to a short survey from Kansas State University’s Department of Agronomy. Results from the survey will aid in evaluating potential health risks associated with gardening on previously used sites and in developing best management practices for gardeners growing on these sites.​ Read more below or see the survey on the KSU site.

Gardenroots Project

Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta nurtured a community-academic partnership that led to Gardenroots, a co-created public participation in scientific research program (citizen science). The Gardenroots project encompassed many of the key principles from informal science education, community-based participatory research, and popular epidemiology. Using low-cost sampling kits, rural community members neighboring a contaminated site collected soil, water and vegetable samples from their household garden.

Over the course of the research project, Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta provided multiple informal science learning experiences for the community, and together, they characterized the uptake of arsenic by homegrown vegetables near the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund site. With the data, Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta designed individualized booklets to report back the “raw” data (i.e. milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of vegetable), how much they could eat from their garden at different excess target risks, and how their arsenic exposure from their vegetables compared to their drinking water and incidental soil ingestion. Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta designed attractive, graphically-rich materials for reporting back research data to participants and in effect, giving participants multiple ways to interpret their results proved to be successful and was an important research finding.

As a whole, the Gardenroots project demonstrated that the community’s participation in environmental monitoring and risk analysis improved environmental health research efforts in the area.This novel approach to environmental monitoring, research, and communication led to her being the recipient of the prestigious National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award. Lastly, this work has been highlighted in an NIEHS Superfund Program Research Brief 219, Arsenic Uptake in Homegrown Vegetables from Mining-Affected Soils, NIEHS Environmental Factor, “Wetterhahn awardee discusses community project on arsenic in vegetables”, Chemical and Engineering News, “Crowdsourcing Chemistry”, and in the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club’s Newsletter.

Kansas State University: Brownfields Sites

Growing of local crops, especially in urban areas is on the increase and many gardens are or will be located on land that may be impacted by previous use. These kinds of properties, i.e. vacant or abandoned properties with real or perceived contamination issues are called “brownfields.” Tens of thousands of brownfields can be found across the US.

Funded via a grant from EPA, Kansas State University (KSU) works with select community–based gardening/farming initiatives to evaluate uptake of heavy metals and other contaminants by food crops grown on brownfields sites, and develop recommendations for seedbed preparation and corrective/protective actions to address contaminants. The goals of this project are 1) to enhance the capabilities of garden/farming initiatives to produce crops locally without potentially adverse health effects to the grower or the end consumer; 2) to contribute to the meaningful revitalization of brownfields sites in a sustainable manner; 3) to increase confidence in urban food production quality; and 4) to provide resources for producers, urban land managers, local and state government, and extension agents to implement proposed best management practices for the detection and mitigation of potentially harmful substances in soils on brownfields sites.

Field test plots were established within the select community gardens and three vegetable crop types with three very different growth and contaminant uptake patterns were planted over two growing seasons. Effectiveness of selected site-specific soil amendments to reduce bioavailability of lead, arsenic and/or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) was evaluated. Associated best management practices focusing on reduction of both direct (soil-human) and indirect (soil-plant-human) exposure to the gardeners and their children were developed.

Website: www.gardeningonbrownfields.org/ The site is still under construction and more information will be added.

Special survey from Kansas State University’s Department of Agronomy—call participants are invited and encouraged to respond:

May we ask you some questions? Kansas State University’s Department of Agronomy created a short survey to obtain general knowledge regarding gardening habits and produce consumption of garden-grown crops. Results from the survey will aid in evaluating potential health risks associated with gardening on previously used sites and in developing best management practices for gardeners growing on these sites.​ The survey should only take 5-7 minutes to complete. Please go online to take the survey. Deadline: May 23, 2014. Thank you!

Additional resources

Gardenroots Project

Gardenroots Website

Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Artiola, JF, Maier, RM, Gandolfi, AJ. Building a co-created citizen science program with gardeners neighboring a Superfund site: the Gardenroots case study. Recommended for acceptance, International Public Health Journal (Special issue), 2015;7(1).

Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Beamer, P, Maier, RM. 2013. Home gardening near a mining site in an arsenic-endemic region of Arizona: assessing arsenic exposure dose and risk via ingestion of home garden vegetables, soils, and water. Science of the Total Environment, 454-455:373-82, PMID: 23562690.

Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Artiola, JF, Maier, RM. 2013. A greenhouse and field-based study to determine the accumulation of arsenic in common homegrown vegetables. Science of the Total Environment, 443, 299-306, PMID: 23201696.

Kansas State University: Brownfields Sites

Attanayake, C. P., Hettiarachchi, G. M., Harms, A., Presley, D., Martin, S., Pierzynski, G.M. 2014. Field evaluations on soil plant transfer of lead from an urban garden soil. Journal of Environmental Quality, 43:475-487

Martin, S.E., Hettiarachchi, G.M. 2013. Gardening on Brownfields: Obtaining Property Information and Site History. Kansas State Research and Extension Publication MF3078

Martin, S.E., Hettiarachchi, G.M. 2013. Gardening on Brownfields: Testing your Soil for Nutrients, pH and Organic Matter. Kansas State Research and Extension Publication MF3095

Martin, S.E., Hettiarachchi, G.M. 2013. Gardening on Brownfields: Historical Property Usage and Implications. Kansas State Research and Extension Publication MF3096

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