Urban Farming Comes with Unique Soil Contamination Risks

urban farm

Urban farming is on the rise—some 9 million Americans are now growing food in urban areas—highlighting the growing shift towards greener cities and truly local food. But is it safe?

A new report suggests food contamination is also on the rise in urban environments with soil contamination a serious risk.

According to NPR’s The Salt, the study, conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, found that many urban gardeners are not aware of how to grow food safely in urban soil. “Most gardeners understand that the soil in big cities is often contaminated with lead — and know to get their soil tested. But the researchers’ interviews with 70 urban gardeners in Baltimore revealed that most are pretty clueless about how to avoid other types of contaminants — like heavy metals and asbestos — from getting into their vegetables.”

Part of the problem, notes NPR, is that there are some contaminants gardeners can’t or don’t know to test for, according to Brent Kin, a program officer at the Center for a Livable Future. Common soil tests check levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic, but there are other risks in urban environments such as “petrochemicals left behind by cars, or cleaning solvents, which might have seeped into the soil from an old Laundromat,” problems not common in rural areas.

“Many of these chemicals — including the cleaning solvents laundromats used back in the day, and chemicals found in the exhaust of cars — are carcinogenic, and they’re dangerous to ingest or even breath in. Asbestos left over from a building demolished years ago cause lung problems, as well. And children are especially vulnerable to all of these substances,” Kim told NPR.

What can a budding urban gardener do? Kim recommends learning about the land’s history (was it a gas station?), and then begin soil testing. In areas where the information isn’t readily available, or there are potential risks, raised beds and container gardens can help to avoid contamination and grow healthy fruits and vegetables.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: plush dahal