The Only Thing Toxic About The White House Kitchen Garden Is The Misinformation: Scientists Correct The Record On Contamination

No one is being poisoned by eating the bounty of wonderful crops that have been grown in the White House Kitchen Garden, period.
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I think it's irresponsible that Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center For Food Safety, who claims to be "one of the country's leading environmental attorneys and authors," is trying to use the White House Kitchen Garden as a symbol for environmental tragedy in America. In a sensationalistic piece right here on Huffington Post, Mr. Kimbrell claims that the White House Kitchen Garden is producing toxic crops, and cites the National Park Service's lead test result of 93 parts per million as evidence of "alarming contamination." But a lead reading of 93 ppm 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.

"It would be nearly impossible to find a garden anywhere with [a lead level] less than 93 ppm," Dr. Filippelli said, and added that it's absurd to claim contamination based on this test result.

So why is Mr. Kimbrell essentially accusing the President and Mrs. Obama of poisoning their own children and visiting world leaders by feeding them suspect spinach and contaminated collard greens from the White House Kitchen Garden? Mr. Kimbrell is trying to make a point about the horrors of sewage sludge, and he hasn't done his own research. He's parroting a story that appeared on the Mother Jones website, which claims that sewage sludge spread on the White House lawns during the Clinton era has permanently contaminated the entire White House campus. This misinformation campaign has slithered around the blogosphere like a viral worm, but the only bit of truth in any of the stories is that the National Park Service did in fact test the White House Kitchen Garden for lead, and did in fact find that lead level reading of 93 parts per million. And Dr. Filippelli maintains that anyone suggesting the garden is contaminated based on a lead count of 93 ppm simply has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Dr. David L. Johnson, professor of Environmental Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Forestry at the State University of New York, agrees with Dr. Filippelli's assessment, and he adds that Washington, DC already has relatively low lead levels when compared to other cities that previously had heavy industry located within their borders. He said that lead testing is a good idea for all city gardens, so appropriate remediation measures can be taken to grow safe food if lead is present. But no remediation of the South Lawn, where the White House Kitchen Garden is situated, was 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.

Dr. Filippelli also 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," Dr. Filippelli added, to give perspective.

It should be noted that almost every state agriculture extension agency in the US makes the same recommendation--that planting crops in soil with lead levels of between 200 and 400 ppm is no danger to human health.

Dr. Kimberly Gray agrees with both Dr. Filippelli and Dr. Johnson's assessments of the White House Kitchen Garden. She's the Director of the Environmental Sciences Program at Northwestern University, as well as Associate Director of the Institute of Environmental Catalysis, and has spent a lot of research time figuring out remediation solutions for environments that actually are heavily contaminated. She said she's frequently seen areas in Chicago with lead levels between 5,000 and 10,000 ppm. She noted that calling the White House Kitchen Garden "contaminated" based on a lead count of 93 ppm is "about politics, not lead."

"It's inflammatory," Dr. Gray said. "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.

Dr. Filippelli said that the ppm reading for the White House Kitchen Garden is most likely 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. Dr. Gray agreed; both have studied the different ways various crops absorb lead.

Andrew Kimbrell's--and Mother Jones's--claims that the sewage sludge spread on the White House grounds was itself highly toxic is based on a shaky understanding of sludge, too.

"It's of little concern that there is enduring sludge contamination at the White House, given the lead reading," Dr. Gray said. "On average, sludge has elevated levels of heavy metals but not terribly high levels. You have to know what slipstream it [the sludge] came from, and that's impossible now."

Dr. Johnson concurred.

"As time has marched forward, any contaminants [at the White 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 Internet that there's a story there."

No one is being poisoned by eating the bounty of wonderful crops that have been grown in the White House Kitchen Garden, and it's become a source of inspiration for people all over America and around the world. It's created a whole new interest in school and urban gardening, in nutrition and health issues, in local and organic sourcing--among many other things. There's simply no reason for any of these bizarre attempts to slam the project. So perhaps the most interesting, enduring story on the Internet will become why people who claim to be environmentalists and experts are trying to use the White House Kitchen Garden as a high-profile example of all that's gone wrong in America. Lastly, it's unfortunate that all Mr. Kimbrell's long, good work in promoting a more sustainable food system is being threatened by what he's saying about the White House Kitchen Garden.

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