Heavy Metals in Brooklyn, Not as Safe as Rock & Roll.

Eco Brooklyn is gearing up for it Spring Soil Remediation Projects. A potential client has sent us their Soil Testing Report and it was time to refresh our knowledge on key components of soil contamination and remediation.

Heavy Metal Contaminated Soil

Backyard Soil Contamination

Backyard Contamination Sample

Soil Sample Report

The level of contamination in their report will require root barriers and the addition of six inches of topsoil.

According to the Environmental Sciences Analytical Center at Brooklyn College It is not uncommon for many New York City gardens to have contamination.  The dense urban environment has contributed to an overabundance of metals including: Lead, Chromium, Nickel, Arsenic, and Cadmium.

Prior to the 1980’s heavy metals were used primarily in manufacturing processes. Lead is one of the most abundant toxins that contributes to soil contamination, and was commonly found in paint, print making ink, fertilizers and gasoline.

Chromium is another substantial toxin found commonly in Brooklyn soil. The element was widespread in the production of paint, tanning salts, car parts, and plumbing fixtures.

Heavy metal poisoning often results in birth defects, autism, allergies, weight loss, and even paralysis.

Safe Levels of Toxic Metals

Soil Contamination and Remediation

The chart above, from California’s Environmental Protection Agency,  displays the safe levels of the most common heavy metals found in soil. The second column displays the levels for which the California Office for Environmental Health deems safe for soil use, such as gardening, while the EPA suggests a significantly higher threshold in the third column.

The State of New York does not currently have specific guidelines or regulations for garden soil. If you own a brownstone or home in Brooklyn you can bet your soil has toxic levels of heavy metals.

Testing for contamination is a simple and inexpensive process at Brooklyn College. Just visit their Soil Testing Website, and follow the five easy steps to receive a Soil Test Analysis and/or a Tissue Analysis of your fruits and vegetables.

Eco Brooklyn recommends following the European ECO Label threshold for heavy metals. Soil containing lead above 100 parts per million should be mediated and it is crucial to apply these standards when children are involved. Green building starts with designing a good foundation whether it involves sustainably sourced wood studs or a contamination free lot to build upon.

-Anthony Rivale

Adverse Effects on Children’s Health From Soil Lead Contamination

An article about the adverse effects of soil lead contamination on children’s health was recently published on WNYC. As a green builder involved in garden soil lead remediation this was very interesting to us.

Perhaps it is the spring weather driving children outdoors in droves, but Eco Brooklyn has been receiving a number of inquiries from local families regarding soil remediation. Back when we first tested the Eco Brooklyn Show House soil in 2010 and got lead results far above what is remotely safe, we realized this is a real problem and became by default a Soil Remediation Contractor for NY and Brooklyn brownstones.

Living in Carroll Gardens, one of the more family-friendly neighborhoods in New York City, Eco Brooklyn cannot emphasize enough the importance of lead remediation for the sake of our children’s health. Our recent posts reviews some of the key components.

-Liza Chiu

Heavy Metals in Brooklyn, Not as Safe as Rock & Roll.

Eco Brooklyn is gearing up for it Spring Soil Remediation Projects. A potential client has sent us their Soil Testing Report and it was time to refresh our knowledge on key components of soil contamination and remediation.

Heavy Metal Contaminated Soil

Backyard Soil Contamination

Backyard Contamination Sample

Soil Sample Report

The level of contamination in their report will require root barriers and the addition of six inches of topsoil.

According to the Environmental Sciences Analytical Center at Brooklyn College It is not uncommon for many New York City gardens to have contamination.  The dense urban environment has contributed to an overabundance of metals including: Lead, Chromium, Nickel, Arsenic, and Cadmium.

Prior to the 1980’s heavy metals were used primarily in manufacturing processes. Lead is one of the most abundant toxins that contributes to soil contamination, and was commonly found in paint, print making ink, fertilizers and gasoline.

Chromium is another substantial toxin found commonly in Brooklyn soil. The element was widespread in the production of paint, tanning salts, car parts, and plumbing fixtures.

Heavy metal poisoning often results in birth defects, autism, allergies, weight loss, and even paralysis.

Safe Levels of Toxic Metals

Soil Contamination and Remediation

The chart above, from California’s Environmental Protection Agency,  displays the safe levels of the most common heavy metals found in soil. The second column displays the levels for which the California Office for Environmental Health deems safe for soil use, such as gardening, while the EPA suggests a significantly higher threshold in the third column.

The State of New York does not currently have specific guidelines or regulations for garden soil. If you own a brownstone or home in Brooklyn you can bet your soil has toxic levels of heavy metals.

Testing for contamination is a simple and inexpensive process at Brooklyn College. Just visit their Soil Testing Website, and follow the five easy steps to receive a Soil Test Analysis and/or a Tissue Analysis of your fruits and vegetables.

Eco Brooklyn recommends following the European ECO Label threshold for heavy metals. Soil containing lead above 100 parts per million should be mediated and it is crucial to apply these standards when children are involved. Green building starts with designing a good foundation whether it involves sustainably sourced wood studs or a contamination free lot to build upon.

-Anthony Rivale

Bioswale Basics

Do you ever think about where all that water goes when it rains?

In a natural system, most rainwater gets absorbed in the ground where it falls. It gradually flows, or percolates, through the soil until it reaches the water table (the point in which an underground area is saturated with water.) As the water percolates through the soil, it gets filtered of contaminants like pathogens, pollutants, and silt. Gravity slowly pushes the groundwater to a retention area, a place that holds the water like a river, lake, or the ocean.

Managing stormwater

In an urban environment where rainwater falls on impermeable surfaces, surfaces that water cannot pass through like parking lots, the rain becomes runoff which flows over the impermeable surfaces picking up pollutants like lead and then directly into a manmade drain. This water flows through a city’s sewer system where it is eventually treated, which takes a lot of energy and money, and is then released (usually not entirely clean and with harmful chemicals like chlorine that are used to treat the water) into local waterways. During times of flooding, which are becoming more frequent in the Northeast, sewer systems become overwhelmed and cities are forced to release untreated, raw sewage into nearby rivers and oceans.

urban runoff

 

To reduce the damaging effects of flooding and wastewater overflow, urban dwellers should create more permeable surfaces like gardens, specifically ones with bioswales. A bioswale is a low-lying area designed to remove silt and pollution from runoff and to manage flooding.

Many considerations need to be taken when designing a bioswale:

  • Location: must be in a low-lying area where water tends to collect.
  • Gradient: flat areas or areas with a slope greater than 5% are not practical for bioswales.
  • Drainage: use highly permeable mediums like gravel or coarse sands. Do not build a bioswale in an area with a high water table.
  • Plants: choose plants that are both flood and drought resistant. Native plants are better because they do not need fertilizer, will handle the climate more heartily, and will increase biodiversity.
  • Purpose: design your bioswale to solve a specific problem like flooding, high levels of nitrogen/phosphorus, pollution mitigation, or lack of biodiversity.

As an NY green contracting company with landscape design services, Eco Brooklyn can help you design and install a bioswale that will effectively resolve flooding problems, reduce the amount of contaminants entering local waterways, increase groundwater volume, and aid local biodiversity all while adding beauty to your backyard.

backyard flooding brooklyn

This is an example of a bioswale designed specifically to reduce the effects of flooding. It is placed at the lowest point in the yard and is sloped downward to move water to either a drain or retention area. The gravel allows water to enter the ground quickly to stop flooding. We would add more plants to this one if it were ours.

NY green builder

Rain Gardens are a type of bioswale. They tend to have a more aesthetic focus while still redirecting stormwater back into the ground and away from sewer systems.

As part of the city’s plan to retrofit New York, a number of 5 x 20 ft bioswales will be built along city streets.  Read more here.

Eco Brooklyn is planning on building a 5 x 13 ft tree planter that will act partly as a bioswale in the sidewalk outside the Green Show House. We are getting our applications in and revising our design so we hope the project will be underway shortly! More on that as we progress…

 

ADDENDUM: WATER CONTAMINANTS 101

  • Silt: Silt is made up of fine particles of soil, sand, and dust. It is easily transported by runoff because it is so light. When silt enters a waterbody it tends to linger at the surface of the water and eventually settles at the bottom. Not only is the cloudy effect of silt unattractive, but it also blocks sunlight from reaching the aquatic plants inhabiting the water body. Without sunlight those plants will die, diminishing habitat and food sources for aquatic animal life. Aquatic plants also play a major role in adding oxygen to the water. Without them, water bodies can become anaerobic, devoid of oxygen, which makes them inhospitable to plant and animal life and undrinkable for humans.
  • Phosphorus and nitrogen: These are the two elements that drive plant growth. Excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) enter groundwater mainly from fertilizer that gets washed away as runoff. Large amounts of N and P in waterbodies tend to support large algal blooms. Algae is microscopic and lives at the surface of the water. With enough sunlight, N, and P, blooms can become so large that, like silt, they can block sunlight from entering the water, starving the aquatic plants. When the algae eventually dies, it sinks to the bottom of the water where it will be decomposed, a process that uses up oxygen, thus subtracting further from the water’s oxygen levels. Further, some algal blooms can be toxic, harming the animal life around it, or can be ingested by fish then making them toxic for humans to eat. If you use fertilizer in your yard, consider using plants that have high-phosphorus absorption.
  • Pathogens: A pathogen is a virus, bacteria, or other microorganism that can cause disease. Pathogens are most commonly introduced to water through agricultural runoff of manure and animal wastes.
  • Pharmaceuticals: When we ingest drugs, traces of them are excreted in our urine. These chemicals make their way through the sewer system and into local water bodies. Scientists are not entirely sure how much of an impact pharmaceuticals really have in water systems. It has been suggested that increased levels of estrogen, which come from birth control pills, may be effecting sexual development of some aquatic animals.
  • Heavy metals: Heavy metals enter the hydrosphere mainly through industrial practices like mining and smelting. Heavy metals are dangerous because in large quantities they can be poisonous to humans and animals. If your backyard has a lead problem, for example, use plants that absorb metals. Eco Brooklyn also offers soil remediation services.
By Malone Matson

 

Earth Bags And Their Urban Gardening Applications

Earth bags are sacks, usually made of burlap or polypropylene, stuffed with natural materials like clay, sand, or dirt. They can be used to construct buildings as well as retaining walls, ponds and raised gardens.

First used by the military to create durable structures that are quick and easy to erect, the technique has become a popular green building tool.

sustainable building ny

Sacks can be salvaged from old feed bags, though new ones are still inexpensive. The fill, if the bags will be used to create a structure, can be sourced from the soil removed to build the structure, avoiding landfills. Or, if your bag will have a gardening or agricultural application, you can use compost. In other words, earth bags are very sustainable.

Earth bags can be used to create long lasting structures that are impervious to fire, natural disasters like earthquakes, and even bullets. They have been helpful in creating strong but inexpensive shelters for people in undeveloped countries.

They be useful to an urban setting for the following:

Pond walls

Rain Gardens

Raised planters for decoration and food

Landscaping walls

One story structures

Eco Brooklyn is particularly impressed by Filtrexx®‘s commitment to sustainability and quality in their production of earth bags. This company has designed earth bags that can be used as planters for gardens or farms, protecting the plants from weeds and pests and creating a raised bed to prevent drowning. Bags can be stacked vertically to make living walls.

Their tube shape makes landscape design very simple and contains the plants without extra maintenance. Filtrexx also produces bags designed to remove heavy metals from contaminated soil, which is a widespread problem in New York and other major cities. Finally the bags can be used to divert rain water, create bioswales, and prevent soil erosion.

For help designing and/or installing an earth bag garden, living wall, soil remediation project, or runoff prevention, contact Eco Brooklyn, your local NY green contractor and landscaper.

NY sustainable design

Testing New York Soil

The New York area has a lot of brownstones with backs yards. What a lot of people don’t know is that those back yards are contaminated. As a New York soil remediation company we’ve become pretty obsessed with this. It is alarming how many yards come up high in heavy metals, especially lead.

Anything below 100ppm of lead in soil is considered safe by European standards. In NY it is anything below 400ppm. Seems like a big difference but the results we are seeing renders that difference irrelevant. The last job we did had 2,100ppm, more than five times the safe level in NY.

And this is common.

I first got into this a couple years ago when I tested the soil at the Eco Brooklyn green show house. The test came back with 3,500ppm.

I freaked.

I called up Dr. Cheng who runs the testing lab at Brooklyn College to see if there had been an error and if not what city agency do I call! His response was very nonchalant: “That number is pretty common,” he said.

And no he didn’t know of anyone who could help. This is the main guy in NY when it comes to this stuff.

Being a green contractor it wasn’t a stretch to educate myself and add soil remediation to the list of Eco Brooklyn’s services. It is such and important one.

100 years of lead from garbage incinerators, car fumes, and paint are the main culprits of soil contamination in NYC and it is amazing how many people are using back yards contaminated with it.

So test your yard! It is easy and cheap – $10-35, and Dr. Cheng just upgraded their technique so the test takes an hour. Just gather some soil and send it or bring it to the soil testing lab at Brooklyn College. They offer a great service.

My son exploring the lead free Eco Brooklyn green show house garden. It is designed to be a NY in the 1600's

A Fresh Start for a Contaminated Brooklyn Garden

Spring gardening is upon us and as a New York soil remediation company we are getting a lot of calls from clients wanting to remove lead contaminated soil from their back yards. We just finished a job last week.

The clients had a beautiful garden in the back yard of their brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant. Several years of careful work had brought a happy profusion to the space, with native plants nestled close to roses and figs, carefully placed tall grasses creating a tiny ‘secret garden’ area,  and a raised bed providing fresh vegetables every summer.

But when their adorable son reached 18 months old, they decided to have the soil tested before letting him play in the garden – and they were very glad they did. The soil was contaminated with 2500 ppm (parts per million) of lead, enough to make it unhealthy for adult contact and very dangerous for a child. To put the number in perspective: uncontaminated soil has about 10ppm of lead; in the Netherlands, 40ppm or more is considered unacceptable; in the US, the EPA advises remediation in children’s play areas at 400ppm!

Lead has found its way into our urban soils mainly from paints and (pre-1980s) automobile emissions, and like other heavy metals it is very persistent and will be there for many years to come.  It can poison us either through direct contact with the soil or by eating plants that have grown in it, and it causes damage to the brain and nervous system, behavior problems and slow growth in children, as well as reproductive problems in adults.

Unfortunately, almost all soil in New York City (and other major metropolises like Detroit) are contaminated with heavy metals.  A $35 soil test from Brooklyn college will tell you what heavy metals you have and in what quantities, but it’s safe to assume contamination if you’re gardening in the city. Luckily there are several options for remediation, and as an ecological contractor, we can find solutions that work with your situation and budget.

The fastest and most affordable methods involve switching to container or raised bed gardening with fresh soil; the least expensive but slowest option is phytoremediation, where plants that take up heavy metals from the soil are grown and removed several times over 2 to 5 years; and the fastest and most pricey involves removing and replacing the existing soil.

In this case, we worked with the clients to find a custom solution that would quickly have their garden ready for their son to play in. The whole area was covered with a layer of compost to bind with lead and alkalinize the soil (making heavy metals less available to plants):

Remediating a back yard with high lead levels.

Then a layer of landscape fabric was laid as a root barrier. This also creates a break between clean and toxic soil in case the client goes digging later.

Remediating lead contaminated soil with root barrier

Six inches of fresh soil were brought in to go on top of this, and extra was added to recreate the raised vegetable bed. Many plants were carefully transplanted and preserved so the garden wouldn’t have to be started completely from scratch.

Adding clean top soil over isolated lead contaminated soil.

We then laid the border, the bluestone and built a nice little deck in the back out of old growth salvaged wood. We planted native will grass instead of laying sod. It should be sprouting in the next couple weeks.

A lead free garden

Thanks to his parent’s green thumbs and a little bit of help from Eco Brooklyn, our client’s son will grow up with a safe and beautiful garden for play and exploration, but most gardens and back yards in New York have not been tested or remediated, and we can only guess at the long term effects of lead exposure for us and our children. So if you’re gardening (or thinking about it), be sure to get a soil test, and call us for a consultation if you’d like to find out more about remediating your soil.