Staying Safe at Home: Gardening


Lead is a bit like the coronavirus in that it can be picked up when touching contaminated surfaces.  One of those surfaces is soil. With spring here, many people’s thoughts are turning to gardening, and it pays to not just be mindful of the virus at this time, but also the potential for lead in the soil if you are an urban gardener.

The most serious source of exposure to soil lead is by eating soil or dust.  Plants do not generally absorb lead, but soil gets on their leaves and roots, and sometimes on our hands.

Vegetables with the highest levels of lead are root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots due to the fact that they come into direct contact with the soil.  Some leafy vegetables such as lettuce can also have high levels of lead.

A number of years back, the Healthy Homes Coalition tested three community gardens in the city of Grand Rapids for soil lead content. All three had soil above what was then reported to us as the Michigan background levels of 21 ppm:

  • 216 ppm (an East Hills community garden)  
  • 110 ppm (a Garfield Park community garden)
  • 72 ppm (a Garfield Park community garden)

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that soil lead levels below 400 ppm are not hazardous for children, these are guidelines for children's play areas, not gardens where food is grown.  No lead is good for children.

How to Protect Your Family

  • Get your soil tested.  While there is not a standard for lead in the soil of gardens, the lower the better. If you are uncomfortable with your soil lead level, consider gardening elsewhere or building a lined, raised bed with lead-free soil. While testing for soil, it’s helpful to test for arsenic too.
  • Don't plant gardens near older housing or garages, where lead levels in the soil tend to be higher.
  • Always wash vegetables before eating.
  • Just like with COVID-19, wash your hands and your children's hands after gardening. 20 seconds, right?
  • Don’t wear gardening shoes inside the home.
  • Keep in mind that some kids like to eat dirt, and very young children like to put all kinds of non-food items in their mouths, such as sticks and stones. Limit the unsupervised access that very young children have to soil. Only invite them into the garden when they can be supervised to ensure garden soil and unwashed veggies do not get into their mouths.

For more information, you can download this helpful fact sheet:



Gardening can be a great opportunity to get outside and relieve the stress of COVID-19 and sheltering at home. Enjoy the sun, and enjoy seeing the promise of new life!