Noted Scientists Try Not to Laugh As They Demolish The Latest Ridiculous Rumors...
Mother Jones magazine is the current winner in the bizarre race to see who can most effectively spin the White House Kitchen Garden as a Bad Idea For America. Last week, the magazine declared that “the National Park Service disclosed that the garden's soil was contaminated with toxic lead,” and tried to make a dubious connection to sewage sludge that had been used in the Clinton era to encourage grass growth on White House lawns. “Contaminated” is a good bit of overstatement, and evidence that Mother Jones does not have a fact checker on staff, or any regard for its own reputation, but the magazine’s pronouncements have rapidly led to a game of toxic telephone on the Internets and in the media. The rumor that the White House Kitchen Garden is contaminated is being repeated over and over, and gaining more traction by the day--even in places that should know better, and do their own fact checking. But Mother Jones is just plain wrong about the White House Kitchen Garden, as is everyone who’s repeated their nonsense. (Above: First Lady Michelle Obama harvests lettuce in the garden, with her Bancroft Elementary School helpers)
93 PPM As A Lead Level Is 'Ridiculously Low'
It’s true that the patch of South Lawn where the White House Kitchen Garden is situated was carefully tested by National Park Service officials before the garden groundbreaking in March, and was found to have a lead level of 93 parts per million. But that number is “ridiculously low” for any urban garden, according to Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, chair of Geology at Indiana University, and associate chair of the Center for Environmental Health. Dr. Filippelli spent a lot of time chuckling during a recent conversation about the White House Kitchen Garden, because trying to make a case for grave contamination based on a test result of 93 ppm is absurd. (Photo: Mr. Filippelli taking a break from field work)
Dr. Filippelli also noted that the ppm reading for the White House Kitchen Garden is probably even lower than the actual 93 level the garden has been tagged with, because not all lead that’s actually present in the soil is bioavailable—capable of being absorbed by food crops.
“But 93 ppm is laughably low to begin with,” Dr. Filippelli repeated a few times for emphasis (while chuckling), and added that anyone claiming the garden is contaminated simply has no idea what they’re talking about. “It would be nearly impossible to find a garden anywhere with less than 93 ppm,” he noted.
Crops Could Have Been Safely Planted At The White House With A PPM Number That's Double The White House Score
Dr. David L. Johnson, professor of Environmental Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Forestry at the State University of New York, pointed out that the only way to get lead poisoning from a garden growing in soil with a 93 ppm level was if the dirt itself was being eaten in large quantities.
“Is suspect that’s not happening at the White House,” Dr. Johnson said, and he also laughed when Mother Jones’s contamo campaign was described to him. He added that a far higher ppm reading would be “normal” in any urban area, because more than a century of using lead for things such as house paints, crystal, fuels, industrial applications, etc.--has led to contamination in cities across America.
“We as a culture got fooled by lead,” Dr. Johnson said. “We focused on the good parts, and only discovered all the bad parts later.”
Washington, DC is an urban area that has relatively low lead levels when compared to other cities that previously had heavy industry located within their borders—such as Chicago, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Baltimore, according to Dr. Johnson. That doesn’t mean lead isn’t a concern, however, because once lead is present in an environment, it never goes away. Thus the testing that was done at the White House Kitchen Garden site, which experts recommend for all garden sites, so appropriate remediation measures can be taken to grow safe food if lead is present. But remediation of the South Lawn wasn’t indicated with a test result of 93 ppm.
“I have no concerns at all about growing vegetables in soil with a reading of 93 ppm,” Dr. Johnson said.
And Dr. Filippelli said that planting right in the ground is perfectly appropriate at the White House.
“I would have no concerns about growing food there, and having kids eat it," Dr. Filippelli said. "I would be happy to grow on that." He added that he and his colleagues recommend the same thing for lead readings of up to 200 ppm. “Most state day care centers identify 400 ppm as the dangerous level for exposure for children,” he noted, to give perspective.
It's Inflammatory Politics To Suggest That The White House Kitchen Garden Is Contaminated
Dr. Kimberly Gray agrees with both Dr. Filippelli and Dr. Johnson’s assessment of the White House Kitchen Garden as a low-lead zone. She’s the Director of the Environmental Sciences Program at Northwestern University, as well as Associate Director of the Institute of Environmental Catalysis (in pic, working in the field). Dr. Gray has spent much time figuring out remediation solutions for environments that actually are heavily contaminated with lead and other heavy metals. She said she's frequently seen areas in Chicago with lead levels between 5,000 and 10,000 ppm. She also laughed when she heard that Mother Jones, among others, is calling the White House Kitchen Garden “contaminated.”
“This is about politics, not lead,” Dr. Gray said. “It’s inflammatory. 93 ppm is well below background lead for an urban environment. It’s what you’d expect just from atmospheric deposition.” Atmospheric deposition is lead particles that fall out of the sky, from things like auto emissions.
“In Chicago, we don’t necessarily even identify a result of 2,000 ppm as highly contaminated, because the lead levels are in general so high,” Dr. Gray said. One of her projects was figuring out how much lead from soils actually gets into plants, and then wind up being consumed, something Dr. Filippelli is also studying.
“Root vegetables absorb much more lead than other crops,” Dr. Gray said. “Fruiting crops, like tomatoes and berries, have a far lower level of absorption from contaminated soil.”
Dr. Filippelli noted that lettuces and greens and peas—all crops that have been harvested in abundance from the White House Kitchen Garden—are also less likely than other crops to draw any lead from the soil.
Dr. Gray said that because lead exposure has profound, lifelong health effects, particularly for small children, dealing with lead is always a cost-benefit analysis in the modern world, of weighing human activities vs. gravely but routinely contaminated environments. But this cost benefit analysis at the White House is almost negligible.
“The White House garden is an incredibly wonderful, beneficial thing,” she said. “It’s great.”
The Sludge Theory Is...Well, Sludge
The three scientists also each weighed in on Mother Jones’s accusation that the White House is still contaminated by the sludge that was supposedly spread on the lawns in the ‘90s.
“On average, sludge has elevated levels of heavy metals but not terribly high levels,” Dr. Gray said. “You have to know what slipstream it [the sludge] came from, and that’s impossible now.” She added that it's "of little concern that there is enduring sludge contamination at the White House, given the lead reading."
“My experience with sludge is that sometimes microorganisms are the biggest issue,” Dr. Filippelli said. “But this far down the line, any microorganisms are dead.”
“As time has marched forward, any contaminants [at theWhite House] that might have come from sewage sludge have dramatically decreased,” Dr. Johnson said. “And because there's no body of evidence about what was in it [the sludge], where it came from, it's not worth trying to make a story on the Internets that there's a story there.”
Dr. Johnson and Dr. Gray both pointed out that perhaps the accusations against the White House Kitchen Garden have a positive side, from a public health stand point, in terms of raising public awareness about lead in particular and other toxins in general.
“It reminds us that we do live in a contaminated environment..and precautions have to be taken with any outdoor activity,” Dr. Johnson said. He noted that simply washing one’s hands thoroughly after being outside is a good way to get rid of environmental toxins. “Parents and caregivers should emphasize that for children, in the same way that you wash your hands before food.”
The Case For Organics, Yet Again
These observations make one more thing about the White House Kitchen Garden perfectly clear. If we’re already living in an irrevocably contaminated physical environment, then eliminating toxins from pesticides and chemical fertilizers used on food crops is critical to preserving human health. Organic practices for growing food crops is a part of health care reform, if we identify environmentally created disease as something that can be eliminated just by changing growing practices. If we can delete unnecessary fats, salts and sugars from our food chain, surely we can delete unnecessary chemicals, too. Organic practices as a key element of health care reform was recently adopted as a platform by the American Medical Association for just this reason. Although the White House Kitchen Garden is not certified organic--as this takes a rigorous three-year protocol--and no one has ever claimed the garden is "organic"--there are no pesticides or chemical fertilizers used, which is a terrific policy. Mother Jones is now officially on top of the compost heap of White House Kitchen Garden bashers, right there with Politico and Drudge Report.
*Pictures of Drs. Gray and Filippelli courtesy of the scientists; WHKG photo by Samantha Appleton/White House.