Soil Kitchens: Reducing Lead Exposure among Urban Residents

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Ana Pomales. Photo courtesy ATSDR
Ana Pomales. Photo courtesy ATSDR

My name is Ana Pomales, CDC/ATSDR environmental health scientist and health educator. Read on to learn more about how I helped teach urban residents to reduce their exposure to lead in city soil in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. In addition, effects of lead exposure cannot be reversed or corrected. While lead exposure is especially harmful to children, it is generally unhealthy for anyone—regardless of age. Lead found in soil in urban areas can create health problems for residents.

Many urban areas have lead contamination in soil— mostly from past use of leaded gasoline and lead-based paint. As a result, urban residents—especially pre-school age children—risk exposure to lead in the soil that could prove harmful. One way my colleagues and I helped reduce this potential exposure to lead in urban soil was through conducting a “soil kitchen.” The idea behind the soil kitchen name is that urban residents exchange a soil sample from their neighborhood for free soup. During this event, our goals were to

  • analyze soil samples for lead,
  • teach people how to reduce their exposure to lead, and
  • teach urban gardeners how to grow food that is safe to eat.

The organization, Futurefarmers, a San Francisco based art collective, created the soil kitchen concept. The first event took place in 2011. ATSDR, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the City of Philadelphia assisted in coordinating the event. EPA also set up a mobile soil-testing lab.

ATSDR Contribution to Soil Kitchen Events

Soil kitchen activity. Photo courtesy ATSDR
Soil kitchen activity. Photo courtesy ATSDR

The first event was a big success with over 350 soil samples analyzed for lead in just three days. About 30% of the samples had concentrations of lead that were higher than levels that the EPA considers safe for children to come into contact with while playing.

My ATSDR Region 3 colleagues, Robert Helverson and Lora Werner, discussed these test results one-on-one with hundreds of participants. Our key goals were to teach individuals, and especially those with children, how to reduce exposure to lead in soil. In addition, we wanted to engage residents in promoting community health. We also gave them personalized information on how to protect their families from lead exposure. Residents let us know they were grateful to learn how to do this.

Since then, I’ve participated and provided health information about the hazards of lead at three other soil kitchen events in Philadelphia. Soil kitchen promotions attract participants by featuring public art, free food, and workshops on composting and local food cooperatives. Most important, they lead to other initiatives to improve health, including blood lead screening for neighborhood children. In May 2013, during one of our soil kitchens, we not only offered free soil testing, free soup, and outreach on environmental sustainability, but we also conducted workshops on raised bed gardening and children’s gardening activities.

At their core, soil kitchens are about engaging people in protecting their health and the health of their communities and about teaching people how to reduce their exposure to lead in the soil. Moreover, gardeners are increasing their access to fresh local produce by growing vegetables in the middle of the city! As such, the success of Philadelphia’s soil kitchens is “fertilizing” similar efforts across the country.

You Can Organize a Soil Kitchen in Your Community!


The most important step that parents, doctors, and others can take is to prevent lead exposure before it occurs. To learn how to organize a soil kitchen in your community, contact me, Ana Pomales, ATDSR Environmental Health Scientist/Health Educator, ATSDR Region 3, at 215-814-5716.


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Page last reviewed: July 9, 2015
Page last updated: July 9, 2015