Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District Environmental Steward Laura Heinlein conducts soil testing April 10 at Harbor View Memorial Park on York Street in Portland. Courtesy / Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District

PORTLAND — As residents get outside and start their gardens, the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District is reminding them to pay attention to the health of their soil, especially when it comes to lead levels.

The Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District is offering free soil testing kits for residents in East Bayside, Bayside, Parkside and the West End to measure the level of lead in their soil. Courtesy / Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District

The Windham-based organization is offering free lead soil tests to residents in Bayside, East Bayside, Parkside and the West End, sections of the city that are considered at high risk for soil contamination.

A $25,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency will fund 120 soil tests this year and 60 plant tissue tests next year, according to the conservation district’s environmental planner Damon Yakovleff.

Yakovleff said the tests come at a particularly important time because during the coronavirus stay-at-home orders more people are interested in starting gardens to grow vegetables and fruit.

“All indications we have, based on feedback we’ve received from community partners, there is more interest,” he said.

The conservation district is working to raise awareness about lead as a soil pollutant.

“People may not know lead can be a contaminant, especially in urban soils,” said Laura Heinlein, an environmental steward with the district.

Soil can be contaminated with lead as the result of past industrial pollution, from gasoline and from house paint that used to contain lead, she said. Much of the development in Bayside was built over debris from the fire of 1866 when most of the buildings contained lead.

“Once it enters the soil, it doesn’t go away,” she said.

Because lead levels can vary throughout the same property, it is important to carefully choose where to plant your garden and wash the produce, especially root vegetables and leafy greens, she said.

Exposure to lead can lead to behavioral and learning problems, stunted growth and hearing issues in children, and to cardiovascular complications, decreased kidney function and reproductive issues in adults, according to the EPA.

Heinlein said naturally occurring lead soil levels is no more than 50 parts per million. The EPA recommends soil used for gardening be less than 100 ppm. Past testing on Portland’s peninsula found levels of lead ranging from 10 ppm to as high as 25,000 ppm. That data, however, was collected 13 years ago and is in need of updating.

“We know it is an issue, but we do not know the extent of the issue. That is why soil testing is so imperative,” she said.

Yakoleff said the district decided to apply for the grant because the organization saw a disconnect between what environmental experts were saying about soil contamination and how much home gardeners knew.

“The goal of this is to bridge that disconnect,” he said.

Free soil tests for residents in the four target neighborhoods are available through the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation and can be ordered online. Tests are also available through the University of Maine’s Soil Testing Lab.

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