Penn prof to check for lead during free soil assessment

The recent public health crisis in Flint, Mich., has refocused attention on an issue that likewise plagues Philadelphia: lead contamination. While the main concern in Flint is toxic lead in the water, in Philadelphia, paint from the city’s older buildings is thought to be the primary contributor to lead exposure, which can cause serious health problems, particularly in young children.

This Saturday, April 23, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at University City District’s Dirt Factory at 4308 Market St., Penn’s Jane Willenbring, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, is holding a “Soil Kitchen” to give city residents the chance to have their soil tested for lead and other contaminants. Willenbring and her students will be providing free assessments of soil with instantaneous, anonymous results as well as information on what to do if levels of lead or other toxic metals, such as arsenic and cadmium, are high.

Willenbring has been organizing Soil Kitchen events since 2012, inspired by a 2011 event of the same name held by the group Future Farmers. This year, her efforts will be supported in part by a National Science Foundation CAREER award, which is funding other research in her lab and will also enable Willenbring to roll out Soil Kitchen events in other cities in the coming years.

“In all, we’ve probably made about 1,000 measurements of people’s gardens and yard soil,” Willenbring says. “It’s also a great venue to talk to people about soil, community gardens, and the importance of local food.”

To help cement this tie between soil health and healthy foods, Willenbring serves vegetable soup to each participant who brings in a soil sample.

She and her students will also be using results from the event to illuminate the plight of lead poisoning in Philadelphia. They hope to compare lead levels in soil with publicly available records of infant blood lead levels in neighborhoods around the city to determine whether living in a neighborhood with high levels of contaminated soil is associated with elevated blood levels of the metal.

In addition to the opportunity to partake in soil tests, eat soup, and access free compost, attendees will also have the chance to express their artistic sides. PennDesign instructor Jacob Rivkin, who created an animation that was unveiled at last year’s Soil Kitchen, will be making a collaborative artwork on site. Based on an earlier experience creating a stop motion animation with the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities and the Wetland project that resulted in the film, “How To Make Seed Bombs,” he’ll be teaching Soil Kitchen visitors how to create their own stop motion films, which he’ll compile into a larger work after the event.

“My artistic practice mainly focuses on the perception of landscape through animation, sculpture, and painting,” Rivkin says, “so it’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to combine these elements during the Soil Kitchen.”

Illustrated instructions on how to prepare a soil sample for testing are available on the University City District website.

Soil Kitchen