After many days of deciding organizational details, we finally broke ground (ha) and took our first soil samples yesterday. I wish I had my camera! The photos would have been great. On Tuesday, we stopped off at 5 gardens, or soon-to-be gardens. But before I get into what I did over the past few days, let me explain the project.
Background: Across the country, a popular movement for organic food has developed in response to the use of pesticides on industrial farms, soil degradation by monoculture, and other poor farming practices. As a result, urban gardens have become increasingly prevalent in American cities, especially as potential solutions to food security problems in low-income minority communities. Alarmingly, however, the health safety of urban gardens has yet to be seriously assessed. Soils in cities are polluted with heavy metals, chiefly Pb, from many years of leaded gasoline usage, paint, emissions from factories, and insecticides. The New York Times featured a recent article just this past May on the issue of Pb in urban gardens in Brooklyn– www.nytimes.com/2009/05/14/garden/14lead.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&sq=garden%20lead&st=cse&scp=1 (Thank you Professor Benston!) Although many of these substances are banned today, Pb remains in the ecosystem and is cycled through the air, soil, and crops. In urban gardens in particular, Pb can enter the human body through one of two ways— skin-to-soil contact when gardening and through the consumption of vegetables that have absorbed lead. The presence of Pb-contaminated soil in urban gardens is especially problematic because people from under-served communities often work in these gardens. Children are especially at risk because Pb is harmful to their growth. In inner-city Philadelphia where nutritional food is harder to find, people grow their own healthy food. Since gardening allows community members to improve their health, build active social lives, and eat healthily, we want to PROMOTE this movement. However, we want to ensure the SAFETY of this practice. This is why we are doing our project.
Project Overview: Ari Briski and I will travel to and visit as many *community gardens* within Philadelphia. Criteria: garden must be used by more than one person, and located within Philadelphia county. The garden must also grow vegetables, or some form of food. We will take and test the soil from as many of these gardens from which we get permission (upwards of 40 gardens). We will test 5 samples of soil and a maximum of 3 vegetables from each garden. If the garden has raised beds with imported soil, we will test 2 samples of soil from the bed and 2 immediately outside it, which would be the original soil from the ground, as well as one spot outside the bed. If the garden does not have raised beds, obviously all the soil we test will be the original soil.
We have read through the literature and learned about how particles tend to fly through the urban atmosphere. Soil immediately next to a building tends to have higher concentrations of contaminants because the circulating air hits the wall and particles fall below. We choose the spatial location of our 5 samples keeping this in mind. We will draw an aerial sketch of each garden, labeling our 5 sites and if pertinent, locations of the 3 vegetables.
The samples will be tested using Bryn Mawr College’s brand new Inductively Coupled Mass-Spectrometer (ICP-MS). It is so new that we are actually not allowed to use it, ha. We will prepare the samples, but our former professor/current advisor, Geology professor Chris Oze, will operate the very expensive machine (although he’s not taking away all the glory from us– apparently, you just load the machine with your samples, press some buttons, and return in a few hours for the results). The vegetable samples will be sent to University of Utah’s agricultural testing center, and the whole soil analysis will be sent to ALS CHEMEX’s lab in Vancouver.
Ari and I met in Bryn Mawr’s Environmental Studies Senior Seminar last fall, and developed a mock grant proposal written for the National Science Foundation for a course assignment. We work really well together, in spirit of the inter-disciplinary-ness of the Environmental Studies department. She is/ (was, gasp) a Cities major and I was a Biology major. Over winter break, I found out about an opportunity to apply for real money to actually do the project. I figured why not? Before I knew it, we were funded by the Davis Projects for Peace through BMC, as well as Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. (…a big THANK YOU!)