Don’t get too excited. Up close and personal with a soil sample from McCarren Park (Photo: Jamie Cone, 2015)

Hey, I hate to be the one to tell you, but this fancy schmancy Spring weather? Yeah, it’s a total tease. Like, check back in 24 hours and you’ll see what I mean. Still, nothing should stop you from getting started on your backyard or finding out how to get involved in your community garden. Well, except for frost. Yeah, come to think of it frost will pretty much kill the fruits of your backbreaking horticultural efforts no matter what. Besides, according to Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) there’s one thing you absolutely must figure out before you plop down any seedlings: Do you know what’s in your soil?

“Everybody should be testing their soil before they garden,” said Allison Currier, an organizer at NAG. “North Brooklyn especially. That’s because if you’re a resident of Greenpoint or Williamsburg, in all likelihood you’ve got some lead on your hands.

Those of us of a certain age probably remember seeing “unleaded fuel” signs at gas stations and having a distant inkling that this had something to do with mom telling us not to eat paint chips (even if they looked good). And more recently, with the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, we were reminded of an urgent need to replace aging lead pipes that permeate municipal water systems across the country (including some of our own). What’s more, often our own governments (well, at least the ones emphasizing fiscal austerity above all else) have had a hand in sweeping serious problems like these under the rug.

NAG, North Brooklyn’s leading environmental organization, has learned this last lesson the hard way– back in the early ’90s, residents of Greenpoint and Williamsburg fed up with being the city’s dump started NAG as part of a grassroots effort to block yet another waste treatment facility from going up in the neighborhood. They were successful, but NAG quickly found out that garbage was only a small part of the area’s many environmental hazards, a legacy of their not-so-distant industrial past. Case in point: a 2012 study of the city’s soil revealed that Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg have dangerously high levels of lead in the soil. The highest PPM (parts per million) in the city, in fact.

How could this be? As Currier told us, it’s all in the neighborhood’s history.

“Greenpoint was settled because it was so luscious and green,” she said. “Factories made mostly shipping materials here, but we also had lead smelting plants.” From the Industrial Revolution through the second-half of the 20th century, much of Brooklyn suffered environmental damage from the byproducts of heavy industry, but Greenpoint’s role as a dumping site for the city’s waste as a whole jacked it up a notch. “Before 1995, gasoline contained lead,” Allison explained. “Since North Brooklyn processes over 40 percent of New York City waste, we have a high level of truck traffic.”

So not only is the area at risk in terms of the usual suspects (pipes, paint chips, etc.) but the soil itself contains very high levels of lead in some spots. But before you freak out and set fire to your tomato plots and leave town forever, there’s a way out of this mess! As Allison said, “We don’t want to scare people away from gardening.”

So what can you do? According to Allison, NAG’s Lead in Garden Soil Outreach program makes it easy to address the problem. If you’re the show-up type– “First, attend one of our workshops,” she said. (Three dates have been scheduled for Spring 2017 so far: April 22 and 29, and May 8, locations and exact times TBA, but stay tuned to NAG’s website.) There, you can not only get a sample of your own soil tested by the Environmental Science Analytical Center at Brooklyn College, but you can talk to the people who are actually doing the testing. “What’s great about these scientists, they’re actually the kind who know how to talk to people,” Allison said.

Meaning… they’re down-to-earth, right?

Alternatively, you can send a sample to the Brooklyn College science people directly by mail– and that goes for not just residents of Greenpoint or even Brooklyn, but anyone living across the United States. These cost anywhere from $45 for a pimped-out analysis to $10 for a basic lead and other gross stuff test. (The NYC Urban Soils Institute also offers soil testing– and sometimes smog taste testing.) While the EPA standard sets 400 ppm as the maximum threshold for a-ok lead levels in soil, Allison was pretty clear: “NAG maintains that no level of lead is safe.”

OK, so what happens if you do have lead? NAG says that not all is lost. “There are plenty of options for remediation,” Allison said. Actually, gardening itself can help with lead cleanup. “[Remediation] might look intimidating if you think of a big dump truck with soil and digging out your whole yard,” she admitted. “But dilution is a really great method too.” As the program’s website points out, one Greenpoint family brought a soil sample from their garden in for testing with NAG, and it turned up a whopping lead content of 2,105 ppm. After cycling “healthy compost” into their yard over the course of a few seasons, the levels dropped dramatically, to 43 ppm.

It was surprising to hear that low lead levels in your soil won’t necessarily ruin your plants. Even the edible ones. Wait, really? According to Allison, “Lead stays on the surface of plants, for the most part, so tomatoes are fine, as long as you wash them.” But lettuce and leafy greens that grow closer to the ground? Well, those are a little iffier. “They should be washed really thoroughly,” she said. Still, you should never be too careful, and just wash everything why don’t you?! “Because the wind will still blow,” Allison pointed out.