Soil and Gardening in NYC

Some urban garden sites may have dangerous chemicals or pollutants in the soil. Contaminated soil can pose different health risks depending on the type of contaminants in the soil, the length of time you were exposed and your overall health. Young children are more likely to develop health issues from contaminated soil because they are still developing and are more likely to put soil in their mouths.

You can be exposed to chemicals or pollutants in contaminated soil by:

  • Eating food grown in contaminated soil.
  • Putting your hands in your mouth after touching contaminated soil.
  • Breathing in dust from digging in contaminated soil.

Sources of Contaminants in Soil

Some chemicals, such as metals, may be in NYC soil naturally, but most are present because of past human activities. Those activities include manufacturing, construction, pesticide application and automobile use. Potential exposure sources include busy roadways, elevated train lines, bridges, landfills, gas stations, dry cleaners and other commercial or manufacturing facilities.

Lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic and pesticides are common soil contaminants that can pose a risk to your health.

Tips for Safe Urban Gardening

The following tips will help ensure you are gardening safely and growing food that is healthy to eat:

  • Wear gloves while gardening. Learn the composition and source of your mulch, soil, and compost. Use clean soil and compost. If you are concerned that your soil is contaminated or your garden is near any potential exposure sources, consider testing the soil.

  • Use raised garden beds. These are boxes containing clean soil that are built over existing soil. Beds should not be built with materials that can leach into the soil, such as painted parts, metal or wood treated with preservatives, pesticides or creosote. Place a layer of semipermeable landscape fabric on top of the original soil before adding clean soil to your garden bed.

  • Use ground cover in areas with exposed soil, such as play areas, seating areas and pathways. Ground cover can be wood chips, mulch, grass or compost.

  • In the fall or spring, add compost to the top of each raised garden bed and spread new ground cover on areas with exposed soil. Cover your compost pile and keep it in animal-proof containers.

  • Control pests safely. Avoid using pesticides. If you use pesticides, only use ones that have been approved for the plants in your garden and follow all the instructions on the label.

  • Reduce or prevent unwanted urban wildlife by leaving space between plants and the edge of your garden and taking steps to block burrowing animals. You should also eliminate wildlife nesting areas, such as brush piles and tall grass. Learn the differences between good and bad insects in your garden.

  • Do not grow root vegetables in potentially contaminated soil, as the edible part of the plant is in direct contact with the soil.

Cleaning and Washing

After gardening, take steps to limit exposure from contaminated soil:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water and have children who play or work in the garden do the same.
  • Wash your tools.
  • Change your clothes and remove your shoes before entering your home.
  • Wash produce before eating, especially vegetables with large outer leaves.

Additional Resources

More Information