Time to stop kicking the can down the road on lead levels in Winnipeg's soil

Despite years of problems with lead contamination in Winnipeg’s soil — including pollution at Weston School — the province, city and school division lack a plan for remediation, says Joanne Seiff, who has previously dealt with contaminated soil in her own yard.

Governments need to act now, says Joanne Seiff, who previously dealt with contaminated soil in her own yard

Soil samples and tomatoes are collected from a yard on Giroux Street in Winnipeg's St. Boniface neighbourhood in 2017. Remediating contaminated soil can be time-consuming and costly, but it's essential, says Joanne Seiff. (CBC)

Winnipeg isn't an old city, but it has a long history of industrial lead and heavy metal contamination.

Lead exposure is serious business. It leads to grim health issues.

Despite years of problems with lead contamination in Winnipeg's soil — including pollution at Weston School — the province, city and school division lack a plan for remediation.

On a small scale, I know what can be done. Surely the experts can do better, but here's how we dealt with lead remediation when we discovered our soil was contaminated.

Years ago, we bought a house in Kentucky with a 1930s garage too narrow for a modern car. We had it demolished, but the rectangular footprint of the dirt floor and stone foundation remained.

I imagined a kitchen garden, full of vegetables, flowers, and insects.

A thousand dollars and three growing seasons later, we had a safe place to plant vegetables.

That winter, my husband, a biologist, said we should dig down a few inches to be sure the soil was safe and free from broken glass. There'd been rusty car parts there, too.

Every weekend, my husband would dig. After digging out eight inches of soil and moving it to another part of the yard, we looked forward to a great garden, if we just added compost.

"Have you had the soil tested?" our friend John, another biologist, asked. No, we explained — we'd dug down a few inches, it should be OK. John suggested we do a test — "to be on the safe side."

We sent John off to the lab with a soil sample.

Samples 6 to 300 times limit

The lead amount in that soil set off alarms like a pinball machine when tested.

John wasn't an expert, so he suggested collecting dirt samples from all over our yard. Maybe we could change the garden site.

We sent the samples off to the local Public Health department, where they had more precise testing equipment for lead. The results were scary. Our soil samples tested anywhere from six to 300 times the legal limit for lead contamination.

Dr. Shivendra Sahi, another biologist we knew, studied soil lead contamination. His research found that if soil has an extremely low lead level, one can grow plants that leach lead from the soil. Tomatoes are a good plant for this.

Unfortunately, if you do this as a lead-removal process, you must monitor these plants. Nobody can eat those tomatoes. Any tomatoes eaten by birds or mice will be filled with lead and can kill some animals. Once the tomatoes and plant have grown to maturity, they must be entirely incinerated and the ash discarded.

Dr. Sahi said that it would take about 100 years of growing, monitoring and burning tomato plants to improve our soil safety. We lived on a hilltop. Even our soil runoff could endanger our neighbours if they grew tomatoes.

Vulcan Iron Works was one of the first businesses established in Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood. Many heavy industries have operated in the central Winnipeg neighbourhood, which now deals with high lead levels in areas, over its history. (Manitoba Archives)

All of this was the result of  parked cars and lawnmowers that dripped leaded gasoline onto our yard, rusty cans of spilled leaded paint that leaked, and a house fire.

Our home was on a large lot because the house next door burnt down. A previous owner bought the property, leveled it and planted grass. It's flat and green, but it's not safe. When an old house burns down, leaded paint and household chemicals end up in the soil.

The short-term solution is to avoid digging in, playing in or disturbing the soil, which is why Weston School now has a fence around the field.

As homeowners, we built a raised garden bed. We couldn't risk plant roots reaching the soil, so we bought a heavy plastic pond liner that sealed off the shed's dirt floor.

Then, we worked with a nursery. Their truck first brought gravel. This three or four-inch layer provided drainage. On top, we placed a fiberglass netting which holds the gravel in place. It's a landscaping trick. Rainwater drains through.

Then, the nursery brought us eight to 10 inches of good topsoil.

A thousand dollars and three growing seasons later, we had a safe place to plant vegetables.

Spend on remediation now, or pay the price later

In Winnipeg, many industrial areas contain toxic levels of lead and other metals — but the same basic remediation we did is possible.

To remove lead, a remediation team could dig down on the Weston School field, remove the polluted soil, put down an impermeable liner, gravel, fiberglass netting, and then fill the field with fresh, safe soil and plant grass.

The kids would be safer. If someone started this spring, the field might be ready for play next year. 

A fence will stay up for now around Weston School's field, where high levels of lead have been detected in the soil. (John Einarson/CBC)

The lead isn't just at Weston School, though, and we all face the risk of long-term health problems because of lead exposure. Whether we pay now for remediation, or pay later for (preventable) health care costs, we'll pay for this pollution. 

If you live in a house built before 1990, live on a busy street or in a former industrial area, have your garden soil tested. Wash vegetables before eating them. Check the Manitoba public health website to learn more.

Many older homes were built without environmental protections in place. Soil testing and protecting safe soil from pollution might be the first step. Leaded gas, paints, and other chemicals polluted our oldest neighbourhoods. It doesn't have to pollute everyone's.

School divisions, as well as local and provincial governments, all have a role to play in lead remediation. The former NDP provincial government withheld results of soil testing in Point Douglas and at Weston School.

The current provincial government issued a request for proposals to do further soil testing at Weston School, to be completed this fall.

Neither a proposal to do testing nor further testing is needed at this point. It's time to fix the problem.

The best solution is to protect the earth in the first place, but we can clean this up and make a difference for future Winnipeggers.

What are we waiting for?

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.


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