How safe is your yard? UL lab offers free soil testing for lead, arsenic

A woman holds up a glass measuring cup filled with soil.
Graduate student Holly Heafner holds up a soil sample at the Delta Urban Soils Lab Tuesday, October 3, 2023, at UL Lafayette in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Lead-contaminated soil can have adverse health outcomes, especially for children. Now in its second year, a project offering free soil testing to Lafayette residents is calling on homeowners to submit samples from their yards for testing.

Growing up in a rural part of Russia’s fertile south, UL Lafayette Professor Anna Paltseva’s parents taught her how to grow her own fruits and vegetables on their family land, sparking her passion for combating soil pollution, which she turned into a project helping residents in Lafayette and beyond ensure their home-grown produce would be safe to eat.

“I grew up in this pristine nature,” Paltseva said. “I just wanted people to experience what I experienced growing up.”

After arriving in Lafayette in 2020, Paltseva founded the Delta Urban Soils Lab, offering testing for various types of contaminants, including lead and arsenic. Over the past year, the lab has collected and analyzed hundreds of samples from homes and public spaces in Lafayette free of charge, and is planning to collect hundreds more.

“This helps residents make decisions about their yards, their community, which then protect the children of that community,” said Chris Adams, a planner with Lafayette Consolidated Government, who has helped the lab connect with residents to inform them about the program. “It’s a really important piece of community health.”

Lead is a known neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system, leading to slowed growth, learning and behavioral problems as well as hearing and speech impediments, especially in children.

A woman presses a button on a machine.
Professor Anna Paltseva operates the X-Ray fluorescent analyzer, used to analyze soil samples, at the Delta Urban Soils Lab Tuesday, October 3, 2023, at UL Lafayette in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

And while lead was gradually phased out of many common uses starting with a federal ban on lead-based paint in 1978, the legacy of its widespread use means it still lingers in the soil of most American cities, left behind by industrial and individual use of leaded gasoline and paint.

“It doesn’t move, it stays in the soil,” Paltseva said.

The good news is that there are many ways to reduce or eliminate exposure, depending on the way the soil is used and the level of contamination.

Home gardeners can still grow certain vegetables, like eggplants or tomatoes, even if their soil tests positive for moderate levels of lead, but might steer clear of leafy greens and root vegetables. A yard where lead contamination is detected can still be safe for children to play in — but the contaminated soil should be covered with compost or mulch, to create a protective barrier.

Soil samples in tall measuring glasses topped with water stand on a shelf.
Soil samples are lined up on a workbench at the Delta Urban Soils Lab Tuesday, October 3, 2023, at UL Lafayette in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

“There’s always solutions,” Paltseva said, but it’s important to know the threat in order to combat it.

Funded through a $107,000 grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents, the project has collected roughly 600 samples so far, usually collecting soil from different areas of the property. Over the two-year grant period, which ends in June of next year, the group is planning to collect 1,000 samples total.

Some of the samples collected so far have come from public land, while others have been submitted by residents. Members of the field team, made up of graduate and undergraduate students, regularly venture out armed with garden shovels and ziplock bags to collect soil.

On those missions, graduate research assistant Holly Heafner is regularly approached by residents, with varying reactions and concerns.

Recently, a homeowner who had agreed for the team to take samples from his property, said he was nervous about participating out of fear that a positive sample might lead to enforcement actions from environmental agencies. Another day, a woman in the LaPlace neighborhood unloaded her fear of gentrification on the students, mistaking them for government staff looking for redevelopment opportunities.

“It goes the full spectrum,” Heafner said.

Combating those concerns has been part of the challenge of getting residents involved. But participants’ personal information isn’t shared with government agencies, Adams said, and results don’t trigger enforcement action.

A woman standing in front of a display of soil samples in pipes, holding a glass and a small boil with soil in it.
Professor Anna Paltseva holding up soil samples at the Delta Urban Soils Lab Tuesday, October 3, 2023, at UL Lafayette in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

The benefits of the program outweigh the perceived risks, he noted. “It seems the more important risk is the health of the residents,” Adams said.

While the results of the Lafayette program are yet to be evaluated in aggregate, research from other cities shows that older neighborhoods — such as Freetown, LaPlace and parts of Lafayette’s Northside — often show higher levels of contamination, adding to myriad other factors that negatively affect the health of their residents, like poverty, lack of access to healthy foods and disproportionate exposure to pollution.

For those concerned about privacy, or otherwise unwilling to participate, Paltseva still recommends some research that can help them determine how likely they are to have lead contaminated soil on their property.

“Look at your property history: what was there before?” she said.

Industrial uses, such as smelters or trash incineration increase the likelihood that lead made its way into the soil. Former pastures or areas that weren’t heavily traveled or populated prior to the phasing out of lead from paint and gasoline in the 1980s are less likely to suffer from contamination caused by those common culprits.

Pieces of paper with drawings on them are taped to a window, with vases and pipettes on a table in front of it.
Artwork hangs in the window of the Delta Urban Soils Lab Tuesday, October 3, 2023, at UL Lafayette in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

At this point in the project, Paltseva and her team are hoping to receive more samples from the south side of town, despite their projections that contamination levels are likely to be lower there. In addition to helping residents make informed decisions, the goal is to create a complete picture of the levels of lead contamination across the city, something that hasn’t been done before in Lafayette.

“Very often, small communities stay undiscovered, because scientists focus on bigger cities,” Paltseva said, noting that many scientists have focused their entire careers on studying these issues in Baton Rouge or New Orleans. “I wanted to extend this knowledge.”

Residents interested in having their soil tested can find more information, including a mailing address for samples, on the Delta Urban Soil Labs website. Those outside of Lafayette who want to know more about the composition of their soil can use the lab’s services for a fee. A full list of those services is available here.