Lead in Portland’s Soils
Free soil tests for gardeners in Bayside, East Bayside, Parkside, and West End
By Tony Zeli
There’s plenty of lead in Portland soils. In fact, soil testing on Portland’s peninsula has shown levels of lead as high as 25,000 ppm. While a small amount of lead occurs naturally, up to 50ppm, anything above 100ppm is unsafe and requires gardeners to take steps to mitigate the risk.
This year, Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District is providing free soil tests to gardeners in the downtown neighborhoods of Bayside, East Bayside, Parkside, and the West End. The free testing in high-risk areas is paid for through a grant from the EPA.
Last year, the conservation district program collected 80 soil samples and 14 plant tissue samples from Portland residents. Analysis of these samples found 36% of samples contained high levels of lead (greater than 400ppm), 31% indicated what are called minor, but still unsafe, levels (100-400ppm), and 32% indicated normal background levels.
Still safe to garden
If a soil test indicates high lead levels, know that it can still be safe to garden. First, get a soil contamination test to find the specific levels at your site. Based on these findings, each gardener will receive detailed recommendations on safe gardening practices, best crops to grow, and what to avoid.
For instance, gardeners can start by growing in raised beds or containers. Also, consider selecting plants that take up less lead. These include cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, corn, pumpkin, squash, eggplant, berries, and apples. Conversely some plants will more readily take up the lead from the soil. These plants tend to be root plants and leafy vegetables. Examples include turnips, onions, beets, potatoes, yams, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, spinach, and kale.
Everyone should test their soil if they have not done so. And even those who have tested in the past are encouraged to get another soil test to detect any changes in the lead levels due to soil erosion from wind and water or from buildup of contaminated leaf litter.
Get a free test
If you live in a targeted neighborhood (Bayside, East Bayside, Parkside, and West End), please sign up for a free soil test at https://tinyurl.com/FREESoilTest.
Consider testing your soil even if you live outside the targeted neighborhoods, especially if you live in a city or village center. Tests are available for a fee via the Maine Soil Testing Service (https://umaine.edu/soiltestinglab).