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Free Lead Testing Available for Local Gardeners

Registration is required for May 22 event

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 13, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Raised beds, such as these ones growing greens, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and strawberries, are one way to help keep lead contamination out of fruits and vegetables. (Jennifer Feuchter photo via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Fruit and vegetable gardeners in McKeesport who are concerned about possible lead contamination in their soil will be able to get a free test done May 22.

During the event, organizers also will provide free information to gardeners about how to keep lead contamination out of their vegetable patches this spring and summer. Advance registration is required at bit.ly/McKeesportLeadTesting.

The event is being organized by “Get The Lead Out, Pittsburgh” in cooperation with the Allegheny County Conservation District and Women for a Healthy Environment.

A sampling of home gardens in McKeesport in December 2020 concluded that 83 percent had levels of lead exceeding safe standards. The soil samples were tested by Penn State University.

In addition, 17 percent of the properties tested in McKeesport had levels of lead in the soil that made it unsafe for children to play there.

“No level of lead is safe in children,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment. “This is why we are working with McKeesport’s leaders to identify the sources of lead in the community, find ways to remove them and educate the community about lead’s harmful effects. The only real solution to lead poisoning is preventing exposure to lead in the first place.”

Lead was a common ingredient in house paint until the 1970s and also was added to gasoline. Lead also was used for making and repairing household pipes and other objects. Ceramics, batteries and even older toys, such as toy soldiers, often contained or were made of lead.

According to the U.S. Census, more than 93 percent of the homes in McKeesport were built before 1980, meaning that virtually all of them likely have some lead paint present.

Lead particles can be released when homes are renovated or demolished, or as lead paint deteriorates and flakes away. Lead contamination from automotive exhaust also may continue to pollute soil.

Although the event is intended for McKeesport residents, no one from adjoining communities who also wants to get their soil tested will be turned away, a spokesperson said.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lead is particularly dangerous to children because they absorb more lead than adults as they grow. Children can be exposed to lead by inhaling lead dust, or by playing in contaminated areas and then transferring the lead pollution to their food or water.

Pregnant women also are at risk of exposing their unborn children to lead.

Lead exposure has been linked to a variety of permanent health problems in children, including learning disabilities, lowered test scores, hyperactivity, hearing problems and anemia.

In Allegheny County, the leading cause of lead poisoning in children is lead found in paint and soil, according to Women for a Healthy Environment.

In adults, lead exposure can cause high blood pressure, kidney problems and reproductive problems for both men and women, according to the EPA.

The soil samples tested in December were collected by staffers from Grounded Strategies and Women for a Healthy Environment as part of a small pilot project, a spokesperson said. This month’s event is an effort to bring testing to a wider population across the McKeesport area.

People who want their soil tested, and who register in advance, will be able to drop it off May 22 at McKeesport Community Garden, 1027 Walnut St.

In addition to testing, experts will provide resources and technical support for local gardeners. When lead is found in soil, for instance, several mitigation strategies can be employed to protect families. Raised beds are recommended for vegetable and fruit gardens, while covering bare soil with mulch or plantings protects children in play areas where lead is present in the soil.

Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh is a public awareness campaign designed to educate the public, connect affected families with tools and resources, and advocate for policies that prevent lead poisoning in Allegheny County children. For more information, visit www.GetTheLeadOutPgh.org.

Originally published May 13, 2021.

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