Franziska Landes, Columbia University – Lead in Soil

On this Student Spotlight: Kids love playing in the dirt, but can it be harmful?

Franziska Landes, graduate student in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, warns danger can be just below their feet.

Franziska Landes is a fifth year Ph.D. student in the Earth and Environmental Science program at Columbia University. She is interested in environmental geochemistry and public health, especialy the potential for community and public participation in science to reduce exposure to environmental contaminants while increasing our knowledge of environmental contaminants, public awareness of relevant health information, and improve science literacy. Her current work involves developing a field test kit for lead in soils and studying the impact of soil lead contamination in New York and Peru.

After receiving her BSc from Jacobs University in Germany, she worked for two years at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, conducting and reviewing environmental assessments and remediation plans for the Brownfields Program.

Lead in Soil


Have you ever tested the soil in your backyard for lead? To find out, our lab has collected over 1000 soil samples in New York City and Peru to analyze for dangerous heavy metal.

In many ways, reducing lead poisoning represents a major public health victory; blood lead levels in the U.S. have continued to drop since the 1970s. However, new studies show that even low levels of exposure can reduce child IQ and learning ability. Children are most at risk due to their stage of development, and tend to be the most exposed by ingesting contaminated soil or dust when playing on the floor or putting objects in their mouths.

Unfortunately, most people don’t think to test their soil for lead. Especially in urban or historically industrial areas, soil can have high levels of lead.  So, what did we find when we tested New York City backyards? Over 80% of the soil samples had levels above federal soil-lead hazard standard for bare soil . These were higher than what we found in some mining-impacted communities in Peru, where only 10% of home samples and 30% of all samples exceeded this limit. What’s more, in New York, an astounding 35% of samples had lead levels more than three times that limit.

Finding high levels of lead in soil is worrisome, but there is something you can do to protect yourself and your children. The best thing to do is to cover the contaminated soil and to ensure children can’t play in or interact with it. Gardening is best done in raised beds, and if your children need a place to dig consider creating a sandbox. Also be sure that your children always wash their hands before eating, and that they don’t stick dusty hands or toys in their mouth.

If you haven’t yet, please consider testing your yard for lead.


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