CICF News / 2012 / March / News Post
March 26, 2012
Digging in the Dirt to Make Soil Safe

Professor Turns Lab Results into Healthy Advice for Gardeners

IUPUI School of Science professor Gabriel Filippelli dreams of kids learning to love vegetables through gardening. There’s just one little hiccup in Filippelli’s dream: The top-soil used for gardening in central Indiana’s urban neighborhood’s sometimes contains up to 150 times the natural level of lead.

“Everyone should be able to live in a safe environment,” says Filippelli. “That should be available to anyone – poor, urban, rich, rural.”

Through an effort funded by The Indianapolis Foundation, CICF’s partner serving Marion County, Filippelli provides local residents with the knowledge they need to grow safe gardens. It’s a project that occasionally involves hauling 150 pounds of soil in his car trunk, spending Saturday mornings at gardening workshops and translating lab tests into practical advice.

Dangerous Dirt

In Indianapolis’ urban core, lead has settled deeply into the soil through years of factory emissions, lead paint and leaded gas emissions. In its natural state, soil typically contains about 20 parts per million (ppm) of lead. Filippelli has found levels up to 3000 ppm in central Indiana, with the average level at 200 ppm. Levels are highest in a region that radiates 20 to 30 blocks (approximately two to three miles) in every direction from Monument Circle.

CICF's Tara Seeley with Professor Gabriel Filippelli



When lead meets or exceeds 200 ppm in soil, exposure can be dangerous. Lead poisoning primarily affects young children, and chronic lead poisoning among children is associated with permanently lowered IQ and increased risk of attention disorders. It can also cause anemia, decrease calcium absorption, result in hearing loss and damage kidneys.

Chronic childhood lead poisoning can have an impact well beyond lowered IQ and attention deficit disorder: it is associated with increased high school drop-out rates, reading disorders, and an elevated risk of juvenile delinquency and incarceration.

While media reports focus on lead paint on children’s toys and paint found in older homes (the type typically found in urban and impoverished neighborhoods), the reality for many local children is that the soil in their own yards can be a significant source of lead exposure. Besides exposure to lead from food grown in contaminated soil, children who play outside risk exposure by coming in contact with the ground.

From Soil to Solutions

Filippelli, alongside university students and teen students from Broad Ripple and Northwest High Schools, has gathered soil samples from more than 250 sites, including several community gardens. Using little packets of dirt, collected in plastic bags, Filippelli is advancing the scientific study of soil toxicity.

Beyond the IUPUI labs, he also provides westside neighborhoods including Hawthorne, Stringtown and Haughville, as well as the northside Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, with soil testing and recommendations. Using simple guidelines provided by Filippelli, individuals and neighborhood garden groups collect and send in soil. Filippelli then sends them their lab results, along with recommendations. Those recommendations include practical advice for minimizing risk.

Broad Ripple High School student Leilah-Olivia Hendricks-Forrest and IUPUI PhD student Jessica Adamic

So, if a gardener living in the WESCO neighborhoods on Indianapolis’ near-westside finds out that her soil has 400 to 600 ppm of lead, Filippelli’s letter will suggest using raised beds, exercising precaution when growing green leafy or root vegetables, and spreading mulch to minimize soil being blown onto garden beds.

The Center for Urban Health has developed a guide that outlines safe gardening practices for urban gardeners, “Garden Safe, Garden Well”. The guide will be distributed online and through print resources, ensuring the broadest distribution to the diverse urban residents affected by soil toxicity. In addition to this new resource, Filippelli regularly speaks at gardening and community events.

“If a group of people want to know about soil safety,” says Filippelli, “I’m ready to talk to them.”

Growing Campus-Community Connections

IUPUI has intentionally built relationships with the near-eastside for more than a decade in an effort to connect its urban campus to the nearby community. Filippelli’s project represents a new approach that combines scientific research and service directly connected to Indianapolis’ urban neighborhoods.

“I wanted this project to really connect with the community outside of the campus,” says Filippelli.

Filippelli has succeeded in reaching his goal. Working with community gardens and individual residents, the Center for Urban Health has provided meaningful data as well as the advice that gives that data value to everyday Hoosiers. The high schools students involved in the project gained real-world science experience, grounded in important research. The project has also provided Filippelli with opportunities to build deeper connections with local gardeners, urban farming advocates and community groups.

For Filippelli, CICF’s funding is a “springboard” to launch additional support for community-based work. He is currently seeking additional funds to expand the work, reach out to more community members and continue to share scientifically-based, practical recommendations to urban gardeners.

“This issue is important because in cities, kids are still being lead poisoned,” says Filippelli, “and the source of poisoning must be addressed.”

You can make a difference!

Our mission at Central Indiana Community Foundation is to inspire, support, and practice philanthropy, leadership and service in the community. We do that by: identifying community-wide issues; working with effective not-for-profits to address those needs; and serving as a philanthropic partner to individuals, family foundations and businesses who are interested in making central Indiana a better place for everyone.

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Photos provided by IUPUI School of Science's Earth Science Department.