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Spring Gardening Dirt Alert

We are all spending more time at home right now as we Stay Home and Stay Healthy to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many of us want to spend some of this time planting a vegetable garden. Homegrown produce is healthy and will reduce the need to visit the grocery store. Gardening is a good way to safely spend time outside. Outside time is good for our emotional and mental health during this unprecedented, stressful time. 

Vegetable seeds are available by mail. Some local nurseries are even delivering to your doorstep now. You can find great resources online with tips for pandemic gardening. While you’re online, you should also check to see if you need to take precautions for arsenic and lead in your soil. Here’s why: 

The Asarco copper smelter operated in Ruston, at the site of the new Point Ruston development, for almost 100 years. While it operated, the smelter’s smokestack sent lead and arsenic into the air as byproducts of copper smelting. The pollution landed in parts of Pierce, King, and Thurston counties that we call the Tacoma Smelter Plume. The Pierce County communities most affected are Ruston, North and West Tacoma, Northeast Tacoma, University Place, Fircrest, Lakewood, and Steilacoom. Lead and arsenic remain in the dirt in these areas.

A basket of vegetables

There can be health risks when we eat or breathe dirt and dust containing arsenic and lead:

  • Lead causes developmental disabilities in children and can lower I.Q. 
  • Arsenic can contribute to cancer and heart disease later in life. 

You eat contaminated dirt when it gets on food, hands, or anything you put in your mouth. Children younger than 6 are at higher risk because they are developing rapidly, still put things in their mouths, and may not remember to wash their hands before they eat. 

There are Healthy Actions you can take to reduce risk from arsenic and lead when you garden:

  • Grow produce in raised beds or containers—like old buckets or cut the tops off milk jugs. If you build raised beds, use untreated wood, plastic lumber or concrete. Try to fill beds with 12 inches of clean soil. 
  • If you grow in the ground, prepare the soil first with plenty of compost or clean soil. Doing so will lower average levels of arsenic and lead in the soil. You may be able to have these products delivered. 
  • Cover bare patches of dirt in your yard with a mulch like wood chips, gravel, or grass. 
  • Follow the 5 Steps to Natural Yard Care.
  • Wear shoes and gloves while gardening. Take them off before you go inside. 
  • Dust yourself off outside and wash dirty clothes separate from other laundry. 
  • Wash your hands well. Use a scrub brush to clean dirt from under your fingernails. 
  • Scrub fruits and vegetables well with a brush. Peel root vegetables. 

Check if you live in an area where arsenic and lead levels in your soil are likely to be elevated, by typing in your address on the Washington State Department of Ecology’s website. You can see if there are soil sampling results for your property. If you don’t see results, email us at dirtalert@tpchd.org and we can check our database. If your property hasn’t been sampled, we can add you to our list and schedule a time to sample your soil once things are back to normal. You may also be able to send a sample in to UMass Amherst. They will test for lead, but not arsenic. 

Learn other Healthy Actions on our website. Stay safe and healthy. Enjoy your time in your garden!