Lead is a natural component of soils in small amounts. Lead naturally occurs at concentrations ranging from 10-50 parts per million (ppm). Over time, human activity has contributed to significantly higher levels of lead in soil, commonly reaching concentrations of 10,000 ppm or more at the base of a home with a lead-based paint exterior.
The widespread use of leaded paint and gasoline prior to the 1980s, as well as the expansion of industrial activities, and mixture with lead dust have been primary drivers of the increase of lead-contaminated soil. Lead doesn’t break down over time, so past contamination can still present a risk today.
Lead can also leach into the soil over time, which is generally caused by lead-based exterior paint chipping or degrading over years of wear and tear. If the soil on your property contains high concentrations of lead, this can pose a danger to the health of you and your family or employees.
In this article, we’ll discuss when a lead test is appropriate, how to test for lead in soil and interpret results accurately, and what to do if you discover lead-contaminated soil on your property.
The Risks of Lead in Soil
Lead contamination in soil comes with significant health risks, even at relatively low levels of exposure. Symptoms of lead poisoning can include joint pain, abdominal pain, impaired concentration and memory, and fertility problems.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure, as it can result in significant developmental problems, including learning/behavioral disabilities, reduced IQ, and impaired growth.
Due to the health consequences of lead exposure, federal and state bodies have developed guidelines for residential and commercial properties.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set guidelines for lead levels in soil of 400 ppm in play areas (where children are more likely to be exposed) and 1,200 ppm for non-play areas. Local laws regarding lead in soil can vary depending on your state and county, and they’re often more stringent than EPA standards, particularly regarding abatement projects.
Whether you own a residential home or a commercial property, it’s vital that you comply with these regulations to protect your family and/or employees. For business owners, undergoing proper testing (and abatement when necessary) will also protect you from unnecessary costs and potential lawsuits.
Causes of Lead-Contaminated Soil in Portland, OR
Many homes and businesses in Portland have lead-contaminated soil, due to the city’s industrial history, busy roadways, older buildings, and lack of regulation prior to the 1970s. Many of the homes and businesses in North Portland, in particular, have high risk factors for lead in soil.
If your home or business space has existing lead-based exterior paint – or if you suspect this may be the case – it’s a good idea to have the soil analyzed for lead.
That’s because years of wear and tear can cause the lead in exterior paint to leach into surrounding soil over time. If the paint on your home or building is weathered, chipping, or otherwise deteriorating, this could be a significant concern.
When Should You Get Your Home or Business Inspected?
For homeowners, getting the soil on your property tested for lead can protect your health and your loved ones from the potential damage of lead poisoning.
If you own and/or operate a business, testing soil for lead not only protects you, your employees, and your customers from health hazards, but it can also help protect you from lead-related lawsuits.
An important thing to note is that buildings built prior to 1978 and those in historically industrial areas are much more likely to have lead in the surrounding soil. Even if the soil is not inside of the home or commercial building, there’s a possibility of tracking in lead-contaminated soil on your shoes or clothing.
Here are a few situations in which soil testing for lead may be appropriate:
- Someone in your family has been diagnosed with lead poisoning
- Your home was built before 1978
- You’re about to remodel your home or repaint its exterior
- You’re planning on purchasing a home
- Your exterior paint is weathered or chipping
- You’re planning to have children
- You eat home-grown fruits or vegetables
- You’re in the process of buying or renting a home (especially an older one)
- You have concerns about the potential of lead exposure to you, your family, your pets, or guests
- The facilities from which you operate were built before 1978
- Your business is in proximity to current or former industrial sites
- You’re planning a landscaping project or performing renovations; both the EPA and OSHA maintain federal rules and regulations to protect workers
- You or an employee is experiencing symptoms of lead poisoning
How To Test For Lead
You have a number of options when it comes to testing for lead in soil.
One of the simplest methods is to collect a sample of the suspected soil and send it to a reputable lab where they can accurately measure the concentration of lead.
There are a number of accreditations that you can use as a guideline to determine if a lab is reputable, many of which fall under the National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program (NLLAP). Additionally, most state universities have agricultural departments that provide testing services.
You also have the option to attend a soilSHOP event, where you can have your soil tested using an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) meter to estimate lead levels at no cost to you. These events are also a great way to get more information about lead in soil and how to reduce negative health outcomes.
However, it’s important to note that while XRF is a useful tool, other methods may be more reliable or more widely accepted.
What To Do If Your Soil Contains Lead
Risks associated with lead levels in soil can vary widely depending on several factors. Because lead concentrations can be difficult to gauge based on one sample, there isn’t a universal threshold for which to accurately evaluate risk.
That’s why it can be helpful to reach out to a certified lead risk assessor to help you identify lead levels, interpret testing results, and develop a plan.
If you discover high concentrations of lead in the soil surrounding your home or business, it’s important to take steps to protect the people who live or work inside. There are a variety of actions you can take to reduce human exposure to lead in soil. These include:
- Limiting access to the area
- Permanently covering lead-contaminated soil with grass, mulch, or bark chips
- Taking off shoes when entering the home or building after walking on soil
- Wearing gloves when working with soil
- Watching your children closely to prevent them from ingesting dirt
- Avoiding areas adjacent to buildings when growing produce, since that’s where lead concentrations tend to be highest
- Hiring lead abatement contractors to permanently remove or cover the soil
Protect Your Home or Business – And The People In It – With Professional Lab Lead Testing From JSE.
Whether you’re a homeowner or you own a commercial property, quality lead testing from an accredited lab is the first step to protecting your loved ones and your business.
JSE Labs offers fast, accurate testing for commercial and residential properties in Portland, Oregon. You can collect your own lead sample and mail it directly to us or have one of our specialists come out to collect it for you.
Contact us today!
Lisa started in the industrial hygiene and environmental industry in 1992 as an asbestos microscopist and began performing building inspections for asbestos, lead paint, and other hazards in 1994.
“This career has been an amazing experience, traveling for work to perform inspections both locally and abroad to locations such as Hawaii and Germany. My real love however is being in the laboratory and assisting our wonderful clients.”