Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis

Earth Sciences Professor Making Soil Safe for Residents

Release Date: 
Mar 26 2012

Urban GardenThis article has been reprinted with permission by the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

Professor Turns Lab Results into Healthy Advice for Gardeners

IUPUI School of Science professor Gabriel Filippelli dreams of kids learning to love vegetables through gardening. There’s just one little hiccup in Filippelli’s dream: The top-soil used for gardening in central Indiana’s urban neighborhood’s sometimes contains up to 150 times the natural level of lead.

“Everyone should be able to live in a safe environment,” says Filippelli. “That should be available to anyone – poor, urban, rich, rural.”

Through an effort funded by The Indianapolis Foundation, CICF’s partner serving Marion County, Filippelli provides local residents with the knowledge they need to grow safe gardens. It’s a project that occasionally involves hauling 150 pounds of soil in his car trunk, spending Saturday mornings at gardening workshops and translating lab tests into practical advice.Download Garden Safe Guide

Dangerous Dirt

In Indianapolis’ urban core, lead has settled deeply into the soil through years of factory emissions, lead paint and leaded gas emissions. In its natural state, soil typically contains about 20 parts per million (ppm) of lead. Filippelli has found levels up to 3000 ppm in central Indiana, with the average level at 200 ppm. Levels are highest in a region that radiates 20 to 30 blocks (approximately two to three miles) in every direction from Monument Circle.

CICF's Tara Seeley with Professor Gabriel Filippelli
CICF's Tara Seeley with Professor Gabriel Filippelli

When lead meets or exceeds 200 ppm in soil, exposure can be dangerous. Lead poisoning primarily affects young children, and chronic lead poisoning among children is associated with permanently lowered IQ and increased risk of attention disorders. It can also cause anemia, decrease calcium absorption, result in hearing loss and damage kidneys.

Chronic childhood lead poisoning can have an impact well beyond lowered IQ and attention deficit disorder: it is associated with increased high school drop-out rates, reading disorders, and an elevated risk of juvenile delinquency and incarceration.

While media reports focus on lead paint on children’s toys and paint found in older homes (the type typically found in urban and impoverished neighborhoods), the reality for many local children is that the soil in their own yards can be a significant source of lead exposure. Besides exposure to lead from food grown in contaminated soil, children who play outside risk exposure by coming in contact with the ground.

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