Home-garden crop harvesting is soon upon us. But could your fresh fruit and vegetables make you sick? If your garden has elevated levels of lead in the soil, it sure could.

Most people don’t think about testing their garden soil for lead before they plant fruits and vegetables. But lead in soil is a very common problem. Even the White House garden was found to have elevated levels of lead when the First Lady was about to plant vegetables there.

The main sources of lead contamination in soil and gardens are 1) lead-based paint chips and lead dust caused by renovation work in pre-1978 buildings, and 2) lead from auto emissions. The bottom line is whether you are in a big city or small town, you are susceptible to lead exposure. Paint chips can be ground into the soil or peel off of structures, and lead dust can be spread through the air from flaking paint on windows, building demolition, and even minor renovations. The closer a garden is to a street, the higher the risk of airborne lead particles from vehicle emissions.

Lead dust is dangerous to everyone – especially children, pregnant women and pets. They may suffer brain damage, loss of IQ, learning disabilities, slowed growth, headaches, increased tendency to violence, nervous system and kidney damage, attention deficit disorder, poor muscle coordination, speech and language problems, reduced neonatal weight, reproductive problems, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain. Another major problem associated with lead poisoning is high blood pressure and hypertension, which causes strokes and heart attacks and can lead to death.

There are steps you can take to lessen the dangers. First and foremost, hire a certified lead inspector to test your garden to see if your soil contains lead. You may have nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if there’s lead contamination, you will be able to remedy that.

Other precautions you can take are:

– Select a site for your garden away from heavily trafficked streets and away from structures built pre-1978 (the year lead paint was banned).
– Erect a fence or hedge to help block movement of lead particles in the air.
– Wear protective gloves when working in soil that contains lead, and wash hands thoroughly when done.
– Keep children away from lead-tainted soil, and be sure they do not eat it.  Lead absorption through the intestines is five times greater in children than adults.
– Contain clothing and shoes in one place when you return to the house so that you do not track lead particles and dust throughout your home. Wash clothing as soon as possible, and keep children away from them, as they have a tendency to touch things and put their hands in their mouth.
– Soils high in organic matter and compost with pH levels between 6.5 and 7.0 do a better job of binding lead in the soil, preventing it from being absorbed by plants.

If the test reveals the levels just too high, you may want to consider remediation of the contaminated soil. There are several options, including soil removal, raising pH levels and adding organic matter, or mixing in new soil. A certified lead inspector can tell you which may be the best option for your situation.

Lead doesn’t have to ruin your fresh fare – just be aware of the potential hazards and know what you can do about it.