A Gorham scientist believes spinach could be the savior of urban soils conatiminated with lead.

“The more lead that’s there, the more the plant sucks up,” Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh, a soil scientist at the University of Southern Maine, said of spinach.

In her small office in Bailey Hall on the university’s Gorham campus, she talked last week of her plan to plant spinach gardens on selected sites in Portland for the third consecutive year. Spinach has proven to be one of the leading plants in removing lead from soils.

With a growing interest in city gardening, Langley-Turnbaugh is worried about people ingesting lead from crops grown in urban soils. She said children also could inhale lead from dust while playing on barren soils, as could adult gardeners as they work around flowers.

This year Langley-Turnbaugh and four undergraduate students, assisted by a group of Portland school children, will plant spinach at three or four sites in Portland’s west end. Funded for the third year by the Environmental Protection Agency, she has previously completed spinach projects in the city’s Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods.

The spinach raised in the project won’t be edible and will be harvested, roots and all, for testing. Once the spinach is removed, cleaner soils are left. Research has shown that lead contamination of soils on some of the plots had been reduced by up to 50 percent.

She’s concerned with city plots where there once may have been industrial sites, such as stove foundries or railroad and boatyards. Emissions from tailpipes of cars that once burned leaded gasoline also have led to concentrations of lead in soils adjacent to roads. Also, in the past, lead likely leached into soils next to homes that had lead paint.

Acceptable levels of lead in soils are 375 parts per million, but she routinely finds levels of 25,000 parts per million in Portland soils that she has tested. “Some of these lead levels are through the roof,” she said.

She said 25,000 is huge. “It’s whoa. Go wash your hands,” she said about working in soils with lead contamination level.

Her team works with Portland’s Public Health Department to locate residents who wish to participate in the project. Langley-Turnbaugh handpicks sites to be tested and areas with children would more likely be chosen for the project. She said Portland has a lot of cases of children with lead poisoning.

“We want to get lead levels down where there’s children,” she said.

The body doesn’t eliminate lead, and she said public health officials are urging parents to get their children tested. She said lead poisoning damages the brain and kids with it could have lower IQs. “It’s a neurotoxin,” she said.

In Gorham, she said high volumes of lead in soils would likely be in only bare soils next to homes that once had lead paint. But she said there could be lead problems in downtown Gorham. Lead might be found in soils anyplace where there had been industry or along a main thoroughfare. Bare ground is a pathway for exposure if soils are contaminated with lead.

Last fall, she and her students tested soils in Saccarappa Park in Westbrook and learned lead levels were alright there, although there had once been a gas station on the site.

She said there wouldn’t be lead problems in yards with grass. To help reduce potential lead poisoning, owners of older homes could cover bare ground near dwellings with bark mulch or crushed stones. She recommends raised beds for gardeners with poly placed between new and old soil.

Langley-Turnbaugh also warned homeowners that some garden hoses contain lead. She said homeowners should buy topsoil from reputable dealers to avoid contaminated soil. She said lead is odorless, colorless and tasteless.

“It’s the silent killer,” she said.

Spinach seedlings for this year’s project were started in a greenhouse last week by a farmer in Cape Elizabeth. The university’s greenhouse is no longer useable.

The selected plots in Portland will be planted densely with spinach at the end of May. The plots will be clearly marked in several languages so the spinach won’t be stolen. Langley-Turnbaugh said spinach is easy to grow and has to be well watered. The spinach will be harvested at the end of June and tested. The soil is tested before planting and after harvesting.

The Environmental Science Department at USM has an inductively coupled plasma emission spectrometer, which the university acquired with a grant for $100,000 in 2002. The device has the capability of testing for any metal in a variety of mediums including water, blood and urine besides soil.

The ICP has aided USM to get the grant from the EPA to study lead in soils. Findings from the lead soil testing go to the EPA, but results from private yards are confidential. The city sends results to homeowners who participated in the project.

Langley-Turnbaugh joined the faculty at the university in 1996. She and her husband, Jonathan, have two young children, and they moved to Gorham in 1997.

Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, is sponsoring a legislative bill, LD 1034, an act to prevent lead poisoning of children and adults.

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