Okay, so I’m not crazy after all. Well, maybe a little crazy (about ducks!) but, more specifically, not crazy because I insisted on testing our garden soil when we decided to get backyard poultry. Followers of this blog may be familiar with both my fastidious* attention to detail and powerful imagination when it comes to Things That Can Go Wrong. Going the extra mile by testing the stuff that goes into our ducks before their eggs go into us is exactly the sort of thing I would do. My husband, apparently, is not really following the blog (boo hoo!) because he couldn’t understand why I dutifully collect the eggs only to discard them.**
“Why don’t you just eat them?” he asked, exasperated.
Give it to you in one word: Lead. (Maybe.) (Alright, two words.)
When I first told my devil-may-care spouse that we might not be able to eat those yummy-looking eggs the girls now proffered up each morn, he rolled his eyes. (“I’ll eat one!” he declared, offering his body for science, I presume.) Then, when the first seemingly nutritious ovoids appeared on the pen floor, I reminded him we were still waiting for test results on a sample egg so “no eating” rules were still in effect. He rolled his eyes again but…he didn’t actually eat any either. Which is good because an article in the New York Times this week might have caused some serious indigestion.
“High Lead Found in City-Sourced Eggs” squawked the headline on a thought-provoking and detailed piece by Julie Scelfo. According to the story, “more than half the eggs tested from chickens kept in community gardens” in three New York City boroughs had “detectable levels of lead.” Gulp.
Now we don’t actually live in NYC, instead residing in a train-connected leafy suburb but the differences between the two could merely be degree. Many American megalopolises reaped the rewards of industrialization but still deal with the residue of its lead-based paints and lead-infused motor fuels. Several decades after the removal of Pb from these and other products, its removal from the everyday environment is much less complete. And that includes the ‘burbs.
When we first bought our property last year, I dreamed of a DIY farm-to-table lifestyle but knew enough about environmental issues to do research before that first forkful. After all, although currently residential, I had no idea what used to be on this parcel and since our community is 400+ years old, tracking it all down seemed like an awfully big can of problematic worms. Rather than sifting through ancient records (and freaking myself out further!) I chose to test what history has carried down to us: the actual soil. Problem was, I couldn’t find a reliable place to test for toxins, plus I didn’t even know what toxins to test for. If you want to measure pH or nitrogen content, lots of choices. If you want to know “what am I looking for if I’m worried about poisoning myself or my family?” it’s a lot more complicated.
After several confounding experiences, I mentioned my struggle to landscape designer Rhonda Turso, who understands sustainable options in home gardening. She referred me to Brooklyn College’s Environmental Sciences Analytical Center where I found Dr. Zhongqi (Joshua) Cheng, one of the scientists later referenced in the Times coverage. For a reasonable fee, his team at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences can test for five different toxic metals (and others, upon request) in soil, vegetables, fruits, herbs and…eggs.
The department website includes a download called “How to Read the Numbers: Heavy Metals in Garden Soils” that shows standards for levels of heavy metals in soil are stricter when the site will be used for raising animals as opposed to merely raising vegetables. Which means, in short, if you’ve got poultry living off your mud and bugs, your soil needs to be cleaner than if you want to grow the World’s Largest Zucchini. (You should still wash it, though.)
Hey, it’s entirely possible that your backyard is hunky dory and you can still look forward to that Guinness Book listing. On the other hand, you might be living in Chem City and not even know it. The only way to know is to test. We sent a bunch of our stuff to Brooklyn a few weeks back and expect the results any day now. Goody, goody gumdrops!***
*Fanatical or conscientious? You decide!
** Which did break my heart, btw.
***As long as they don’t have lead in them! See Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, by Bee Wilson, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2008.
Copyright 2012, Lori Fontanes