Widespread Pb contamination in urban backyard soils for >100 years identified in soil cores constrained by 210Pb and 137Cs

Franziska C. Landes, Margaret Calcio, Jennifer M. Sobolewski, Kelcey Wallens-Logan, Anna Ledeczi, Yael Kiro, Louise Bolge, James Ross, Steven N. Chillrud, Brian J. Mailloux, Alexander van Geen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Contaminated soil in urban residential areas is often overlooked as a source of childhood exposure to toxic levels of lead (Pb). We document mean Pb concentrations of 1200 ± 1000 mg/kg, three times the now outdated EPA soil hazard standard of 400 mg/kg, for 370 surface soils collected from 76 homes in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan of New York City. The mean Pb content of 250 ± 290 mg/kg Pb for 571 surface soils collected from tree pits and public parks was much lower. A subset of 22 surface samples analyzed by EPA Method 1340 extracted 86 ± 21 % (±1SD) of total soil Pb, indicating that it the Pb was highly bioavailable. To investigate the origin of backyard contamination, 49 cores were collected to an average depth of 30 cm from a subset of 27 homes. Twelve soil cores were analyzed for 210Pb and 137Cs to constrain processes that impact contaminant distribution and inventories (particle focusing, soil accumulation, loss, and mixing). Concentrations of Pb declined with depth in 60 % of the cores but usually did not reach background. Mean uncorrected Pb inventories of 340 ± 210 g/m2 Pb (mean ± 1SD, n = 12) were more than five times higher than the radionuclide corrected inventory of 57 g/m2 from Central Park soil cores. Average inventories of 210Pbxs (3.5 ± 0.9 kBq/m2) and 137Cs (0.9 ± 0.6 kBq/m2) corresponded to 71 ± 19 % and 50 ± 30 % of the predicted atmospheric inventories. Elevated Pb concentrations were found both in the fine (<1 mm) and coarse (>1 mm) fractions, the latter suggesting a local non-atmospheric source. This was confirmed by individual grains containing up to 6 % Pb and visible pieces of coal, bricks, and ash. Regardless of the source of contamination in backyard soils, systematic testing is needed to identify contaminated areas and reduce child exposure.

Original languageEnglish
Article number165407
Number of pages12
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - 15 Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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