Getting the Lead Out


The New York Times continues to report on the non-story of the non-lead in the White House vegetable garden. As you'll recall, the original soil tests showed lead levels at 93 ppm, quite a bit below what it would take to get the EPA worked up (400 ppm) but still higher than what the more highly evolved Dutch would want to see in their soil (40 ppm).

Still.  Things have continued to improve, thanks to the addition of lime, greensand, crab meal, and organic stuff.  Now the levels are only 14 ppm, and this, I think, is the only really newsy bit in here:  Look!  In just a few months, you can totally reduce lead levels in your soil using nothing but some simple organic stuff!  And this:  "The pH was adjusted to between 6.5 and 7. When the pH is in that range, lead is unavailable to the plants." Well, that is really handy to know. The lead levels are now comparable to soil that has never been trod upon by a modern human.  Nicely done.

But there's more fun to be had.  The NYT just couldn't help themselves; they had to wade into the sludgestorm started over at Mother Jones back in June when that publication made the point that sewage sludge may well be to blame for the lead levels in the first place.  Apparently this is not the first time the White House lawn has been used to send a message to gardeners and farmers:  there was also that time back in the 80s and 90s when the EPA, wanting to increase public acceptance of sewage sludge, spread biosolids on the White House lawn.

Spreading sludge at the White House was a way for the EPA to reassure
the public that using it as a fertilizer for crops and yards (instead
of dumping it in the ocean, as had been common practice) would be safe.
"The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998, "but it's very clean poo."

And that, of course, got everybody worked up.  Read all about it if you've got nothing better to do with your Friday.

But wait!  The NYT went back and interviewed the retired groundskeeper, Mr. Irvin Williams, "who retired as head groundskeeper at the White House last year, after 59
years on the job, said sludge was used only once there, in 1985."

Just once.  And nobody inhaled.

Except!  Now MoJo wonders if Mr. Williams is really remembering things right.  They cite several media accounts over time of the use of sludge on the lawn, including this from Mr. Williams himself:

"Meanwhile, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds crew at the White House is preparing for life after ComPRO," the Post reported.
"Irv Williams, who has taken care of the White House grounds for 38
years, said they will make due, even though ComPRO has helped the
South Lawn."

ComPRO being the sewage sludge stuff.  Catchy name, that.

Well.  What shit was spread around, and when was it spread?  And what did the President know about it?  Such questions have been asked before at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, regarding matters far smellier than this one.  I'm just glad the Obamas have had better luck with their tomatoes than I have.  Enjoy the weekend, folks.


  1. >>Spreading sludge at the White House was a way for the EPA to reassure the public that using it as a fertilizer for crops and yards…would be safe.<< How about the commonsense law: "don't poop where you eat" -- I'm wondering WHO at the EPA forgot that and decided this was all of a sudden okay?

  2. I know this kind of misses the point, but who the hell names anything “ComPRO” and fails to mentally complete the word with “mise,” “miser,” or “mised?”

  3. It’s not possible for the total concentration of any metal, lead included, to decrease after applying soil amendments like lime, greensand, organic stuff etc. UNLESS one of the following occur, leaching (washes through the soil), erosion (the soil washes away), or volatilization (it becomes a gas). None of these were likely to have happened in the Obama’s garden – too flat for erosion; lead doesn’t leach or volatilize (nor do most of the metals). You could also dig the soil up and haul it away, but I don’t recall that being done. The more likely explanation is that either the test used to determine soil lead changed (least likely, I hope), that the estimated plant available lead decreased (likely because of the increase in pH), or sampling error. If you really care about the number, it’s best to take more than one sample. I’ve not seen the details of what tests were used or how the soils were sampled, so it’s hard to know. I’m not suggesting that the lead levels are unsafe, just pointing out that they can’t decrease. Prevention is always easier than remediation.

  4. I was wondering the same thing, LM. If there’s less of it, where did it GO?

    It seems the only way adding things could reduce the ppm would be if they added enough bulk. My back of the envelope math says you would have to add seven times as much soil as there was to begin with to get down to 14 ppm.

    Either that, or cover it up, and don’t include the old soil in the new tests.

    Either that or the test is testing something slightly different than it says (which the ph argument supports)

    Not that this is in any way important, but the numbers do seem funny.

  5. There doesn’t have to be less lead if they are adding enough stuff to mean there is proportionally more of everything else. I wonder if the test is done on a sample from a heavily mulched top layer.

    I thought everyone was touting “humanure” as the way forward a while back, cradle to cradle food production and all that?

  6. I was always told if your WWTP didn’t take in any heavy metals because there was no industry on the system or the industries’ had pretreatment programs the sewage sludge was fine to use on gardens. I believe this because the inspector from the EPA office use to go home with a backseat of veggies that grew in the sludge drying beds at a small town’s WWTP. One year I got unnamed tomato starts from the sludge drying beds of another small town WWTP. Free and tasty.

  7. Yeah, something is definitely wrong with one or the other – or both – of the tests. It’s just not possible to go from 93 ppm to 14 ppm. That’s a difference of 600-700%. Something else is going on.

    It’s not simply caused by adding more of some other material. One would have to add that much more material. For example, to reduce the lead levels to that degree in the top 6″ of soil, one would have to add 6x as much soil: THREE FEET of soil to the top 6″. It would make for some impressive raised beds. It’s far easier to simply bring in the material from elsewhere, which is the more likely explanation. Lay on 6″ of new material, then measure the lead levels in THAT soil. Problem solved!

    It’s also a red herring to claim that the lead is “unavailable to the plants.” The mains risk from lead in the soil is ingestion of dust from working or playing in and around it.

  8. All the qualities of a correction. Now put this in the permanent record…

    As for sewage sludge, I’d rather have my own poo composted and spread than stuff from the municipal plant composted and spread. For instance, I’ve never eaten Drano or house paint, but the slop sink has.

  9. At the risk of prolonging the non-story even further, the comments here are enlightening and raise important questions about how there could be such a significant difference in the two tests. However, at such low levels, is it worth pursuing?

  10. I interviewed the gardening coordinator at the Bancroft School in DC – the kids who planted and harvested the White House garden – and she told me her friends and relatives around the world were calling and emailing her, all concerned that she’s in contact with such a toxic site!

  11. The thing that bothers me about this whole lead in the WH garden brouhaha is the coincidence with the feverish lobbying by corporate ag. Call me paranoid, but I sense that there was a concerted effort to create the meme, “Homegrown=dangerous, Corporate Ag=safe.”

    It’s good to have awareness of toxics in urban soils, but I hope this doesn’t discourage urban home gardeners. Aren’t all urban soils going to show some lead content?

  12. Party on rich dude thieves. China’s pollution on the wind blown current puts a bigwig smog blanket in the air.

  13. Super freaky. The air is yellow on the northern west inlands of USA. All the Doug firs have been cut or blown down on the west side of interstate I5 years ago.
    I don’t think big trees could stop this.
    Hybrids haven’t made the air cleaner in the PNW.
    China’s pollution is riding the jetstream to my sky.

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