Story and photos by Jenna Martyn-Fisher 

Free soil tests for people who garden at home or who have young children who play outside are currently being offered by the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD). Anyone in the greater Portland area, including Westbrook, is eligible. These tests will let you know if your soil has lead contamination. Exposure to lead can cause lead poisoning which can have long term impacts on your health. Pregnant women and children are the most at risk. Risk can be lessened by testing your soil and knowing whether lead is present in soil where you are gardening. Contaminated soil may not be safe for directly growing food or as a place for kids to play. 

Soil testing on Portland’s peninsula over the past two years has shown that soil lead is very common in many people’s yards. An analysis of 191 soil samples  found 67% to have elevated levels of lead and 33% had normal levels. Most samples were from Portland’s Bayside, East Bayside, Libbytown, and West End neighborhoods.  

Many buildings built before 1978 used lead paint, which can chip off and contaminate nearby soil. Soil can also be contaminated from fires, since building debris often contains lead from roofing, plumbing, and paint. The city of Portland has had many large fires during its history, especially the so-called “Great Fire” of 1866. Debris from this fire was used as fill to create portions of the East Bayside and Bayside neighborhoods. 

Finding lead in your yard does not necessarily mean that you can no longer use it or start a garden, but  you can take steps to lower your contact with the contaminated soil. Using raised beds with barriers between the contaminated and clean soil is an easy way to still be able to safely grow your own food. Choosing produce for your garden that is easy to wash to remove all soil can also help to keep you and your family safe from lead exposure. 

A recent study by the University of Maine showed that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity reached all-time highs. The study also showed that many more people are gardening than before. As food prices continue to increase, and supply chain issues cause hardships, more and more people are turning to growing their own food. 

CCSWCD is working to support people growing healthy, local food because it is a healthy option that helps supplement household incomes. However, testing soils before growing food is important. Even if soil has only slightly elevated lead contamination, safely growing food is still possible by taking proper precautions. 

To learn more, view our factsheets available in Arabic, English, French, Lingala, and Portuguese: 

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or contact (207) 892-4700, [email protected]