This week brought some news that while not unexpected was troubling. The New York Times reported that in a sampling of eggs from community garden chickens elevated lead levels were found in a significant number of the eggs. Of the 58 eggs tested, 28 of them showed some amount of lead with the article reporting that the levels were from 10 to over 100 parts per billion in one egg.
The researchers from the New York State Department of Health were still looking at the results to determine if the lead was from the soil, feed or some other source. There wasn't a call to place a ban on the community garden chickens but the researchers did instruct the chicken keepers on how to minimize lead exposure.
This is very different from a recent brouhaha at some of the school gardens in NYC where a lead test performed by the city's education department showed the soil unfit for unrestricted use. It is almost impossible for urban soils to pass the test for unrestricted use with most tests falling in the restricted use range. This is something that urban gardeners have been aware of for almost 40 years. Cornell Cooperative Extension has long had a fact sheet available on urban soils and what precautions to take when dealing with possibly contaminated soil.
I have dealt with this issue in previous posts on this blog and the conclusion I made then applies here as well. In community gardens that have been in existence for a number of years where the community gardeners have worked to build a healthy soil by adding compost and not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, heavy metals and other contaminants are much less of a problem. Long term sustainability is the key.
While some community gardens have had chickens for many years, widespread chicken keeping has happened over the last several years. Just Food has done a good job of training folks and providing support through their City Chicken Project but that doesn't mean that folks are all following the recommended best practices. Now finding lead levels in half of the eggs tested may mean that there is a big problem here but the eggs tested were from community gardens where the researchers had access so it was not a comprehensive or strictly scientific study.
Most of the soil used to grow vegetables in New York City Community gardens is soil brought in from outside the city so edibles are not grown in the native rubble soil that most community gardens are built on. Chickens that are roaming free in a garden or living in a coop built on the native soil can easily be exposed to high lead levels as they dig for insects, grubs and worms. With a little bit of work and careful attention to where the chicken coops are placed and where the chickens are allowed to forage, I think this issue can be easily resolved.