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The Safe Urban Harvests Study: A Community-Driven Cross-Sectional Assessment of Metals in Soil, Irrigation Water, and Produce from Urban Farms and Gardens in Baltimore, Maryland

November 12, 2021
Environmental Health Perspectives

Sara N. Lupolt , Raychel E. Santo , Brent F. Kim , Carrie Green , Eton Codling , Ana M. Rule , Rui Chen , Kirk G. Scheckel , Mariya Strauss , Abby Cocke , Neith G. Little , Valerie C. Rupp , Rachel Viqueira , Jotham Illuminati , Audrey Epp Schmidt , and Keeve E. Nachman

Background: Emerging evidence suggests social, health, environmental, and economic benefits of urban agriculture (UA). However, limited work has characterized the risks from metal contaminant exposures faced by urban growers and consumers of urban-grown produce.

Objectives: We aimed to answer community-driven questions about the safety of UA and the consumption of urban-grown produce by measuring concentrations of nine metals in the soil, irrigation water, and urban-grown produce across urban farms and gardens in Baltimore, Maryland.

Methods: We measured concentrations of 6 nonessential [arsenic (As), barium (Ba), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), lead (Pb), nickel (Ni)] and three essential [copper (Cu), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn)] metals in soil, irrigation water, and 13 types of urban-grown produce collected from 104 UA sites. We compared measured concentrations to existing public health guidelines and analyzed relationships between urban soil and produce concentrations. In the absence of guidelines for metals in produce, we compared metals concentrations in urban-grown produce with those in produce purchased from farmers markets and grocery stores (both conventionally grown and U.S. Department of Agriculture–certified organic).

Results: Mean concentrations of all measured metals in irrigation water were below public health guidelines. Mean concentrations of nonessential metals in growing area soils were below public health guidelines for Ba, Cd, Pb, and Ni and at or below background for As and Cr. Though we observed a few statistically significant differences in concentrations between urban and nonurban produce items for some combinations, no consistent or discernable patterns emerged.

Discussion: Screening soils for heavy metals is a critical best practice for urban growers. Given limitations in existing public health guidelines for metals in soil, irrigation water, and produce, additional exposure assessment is necessary to quantify potential human health risks associated with exposure to nonessential metals when engaging in UA and consuming urban-grown produce. Conversely, the potential health benefits of consuming essential metals in urban-grown produce also merit further research.