CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Getting the Lead Out

The problem

St. John's is one of North America's oldest cities - a distinction that means history, culture and charming architecture. But hundreds of years of use means the city wrestles with some not so charming issues as well. The city was all but destroyed during two major fires in the 1800s; there were years where residents burned coal for heat; car were powered by leaded gas, and many St. John's homes to this day are built using clapboard - a material that needs to be painted every few years. Digging down into the soil in some parts of the city, you can still find a residue of ash that was created when houses burned to the ground or when people used to dump used coal ash on their properties. And up until the 1970s when the practice was stopped, most house paint contained lead.

A 2003 pilot study by Memorial University's geography department that surveyed a small sample of properties indicated that lead in soils in St. John's is generally high, and warranted further study.

The reason

According to Health Canada, lead is a heavy metal that can be absorbed into the body and stored for many years. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioural problems - and at very high levels - seizures, coma and even death. Lead is particularly hazardous for babies and young children because they tend to put things in their mouths. And since they're closer to the ground, they're more able to breathe in lead dust.

The solution

St. John's Safer Soil is a local group that promotes gardening and landscaping techniques in areas where lead may be or is a problem. There are ways of gardening safely in such areas, as well as a natural way of removing lead from the soil called phytoremediation. The group has started a demonstration garden behind the Gathering Place - a centre for the needy operated by the Sisters of Mercy. The garden is maintained with help from students at St. Bonaventure's College and provides vegetables for the Gathering Place.

On the Go Host Ted Blades paid a visit to the garden as the 2009 season started. Over the summer, we'll check in to see how the garden is growing. If you want to tour the garden yourself, call Lori Heath at 738-7542.