When First Lady Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House’s South Lawn back in March, she was praised by sustainable food activists and local school children alike. Now, the First Lady is faced with a grim, if not slightly awkward, blip in her plans for a White House vegetable garden — the first since World War II.
The National Park Service recently reported that potentially dangerous levels of lead had been discovered in the garden’s soil — 93 parts per million. There are conflicting reports on what constitutes a dangerous level of lead in soil. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that anything above 400 ppm could pose a threat to human health. The National Gardening Association deems anything under 300 ppm safe for humans. While Penn State’s College of Agriculture Sciences says anything under 150 ppm is a low lead contamination level and likely not dangerous to humans.
Whatever the accurate number may be, high levels of lead are known to pose health threats to children, a point bearing a bit of irony since the garden itself was used prominently to showcase Michelle Obama’s role in encouraging healthy eating habits in– you guessed it– children. Lead exposure can cause neurological and kidney damage in kids. It can stunt their growth and what’s worse, children’s bodies seem to absorb more lead than adults.
What caused elevated levels in White House garden soil? Well, as reported on MotherJones.com, it all began back in the 1980s when the South Lawn was fertilized by ComPRO, “a compost made from a nearby wastewater plant’s solid effluent, a.k.a. sewage sludge. Sludge is controversial because it can contain traces of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors.”
It was a way for the EPA to show the public that it was indeed safe to spread “sludge” as fertilizer. “The Clintons are walking around on poo,” the EPA’s sludge chief quipped in 1998, “but it’s very clean poo.”
Then, in 2005, ComPRO fertilizer, now renamed Orgro, was used “in a controversial, 2005 lead abatement study conducted in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Baltimore.” Scientists wanted to test if lead levels in the soil of inner-city yards could be reduced by mixing in sludge. While lead levels did decrease, the startling revelation was the initial levels of lead in the “sludge” which were roughly 237 parts per million — about 23 times normal soil levels, according to MotherJones.com
So what is sludge, really? As Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, reported in The Huffington Post, “it’s everything homeowners, hospitals and industries put down their toilets and drains. Every material-turned-waste that our society produces (including prescription drugs and the sweepings of slaughterhouses), and that wastewater treatment plants are capable of removing from sewage, becomes sludge. The end product is a concentrated mass of heavy metals and carcinogenic, teratogenic, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, replete with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are some 80,000 to 90,000 industrial chemicals, including a host of dioxin-like deadly substances, which are allowed to be present in sludge under current EPA rules. What’s worse, there’s no way of knowing which toxic chemicals and heavy metals are entering the wastewater stream at any given time or in what concentrations. Sludge is always an unknown quantity, and therefore, assessing whether sludge is safe to use for growing food, is — in practice — impossible.”
Interestingly, food companies like H.J. Heinz and Del Monte don’t accept produce that’s been grown on land treated with sludge. In adding to this sticky situation is the fact that Michelle’s plan for an organic vegetable garden will never come to fruition since organic certification processes prohibit the use of sludge. It has been reported though that the White House had no intentions of boasting an “organic” garden (at least not at this point in time), knowing well that it takes at least three years for a garden to be certified organic.
Before we all rush to a conclusion that the first family and local school children are threatened by lead, the First Lady has jumped in saying it’s not so. “The garden recently underwent extensive soil testing that proved it is completely safe,” said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the first lady’s press secretary.
“A lead level of 93 parts per million is significantly better than the government standard for a garden like this. The White House Kitchen Garden Team is committed to producing fresh, safe and healthy food as a learning opportunity about healthy eating, and they’ll continue to do so.”