One Milwaukee Woman's Quest to Rid Her Soil of Lead

Sep 9, 2016

Residents in Milwaukee may be growing their vegetables in soil tainted with lead, without knowing it. A handful of partners are working built awareness of this problem and reduce the risks.

Growing Healthy Soil for Healthy Communities, which includes such partners as Medical College of Wisconsin and the UW Department of Soil Science, is reaching out to residents on the north and south sides.

Avigail Becerra has become one of the program’s staunchest advocates.

Stop by her spic and span house and she’ll likely offer you something fresh off the vine. Her corner lot on West Burnham is a profusion of vegetables and flowers.

Becerra has lived here for 30 years. It looks and sounds as if she’s been gardening for just as many.

A wee bit of Becerra's garden.
Credit Susan Bence

The truth? She started gardening just a year ago.

The seed of Becerra’s passion was planted when a friend invited her to a meeting.

The organizers of Growing Healthy Soil for Healthy Communities were beginning to reach out to neighbors – to let them know lead could be tainting their yards.

“And they wanted to know about the community and they want my opinion because I’ve been working for the community for years,” Becerra says.

Becerra isn’t called a neighborhood watch person for nothing. She’ll tell you exactly what she thinks.

“One of the ladies said she wants to change people’s minds. I said you cannot change people’s mind, never! Teach them new things; how to do things better,” she says.

Becerra immediately began to soak up information. When she attended that first meeting, she learned that old lead paint chipping off her house was making her soil hazardous.

LISTEN: Urban Gardening in Milwaukee Comes With Risks – Possible Lead in the Soil

So she joined the first crop of neighbors who signed up for soil testing. Her sample went off to the City of Milwaukee Health Department for analysis. The result – she needed to treat her soil for lead.

“When they came to do the intervention – they removed and put some little tiny things, I don’t know what they were….so then the plants started coming up,” Becerra says.

Alejandra Hernandez works for Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and handles outreach for the healthy soil project. “So basically her intervention was recommended because it was above a 52 parts per million of lead in her soil. So adding a sulfur mix, fish bone meal and compost to better the health of her soil,” Hernandez says.

Had Becerra’s soil contained a higher level of lead, the program would have prescribed a more aggressive treatment such as completely replacing the soil or relocating the garden.

But in her case, the sulfur and fish bone mixture workers added to her garden converted the lead - so living things – plants and humans can’t absorb it.

Now Becerra is spreading what she has learned to anyone who will listen. She has even recruited neighbors to have their soil checked. “Oh yes, great great great program. Because it’s helping the community,” she says.

Still Becerra sees room for improvement. She’s eager to continue to learn - especially how to stamp out pests or diseases striking her garden.

“I am not allowed to call someone for asking questions,” Becerra says. There’s no rule that prohibits Becerra from reaching out for information. There’s simply no expert available, especially during the busy growing season to help Becerra find answers.

The Growing Healthy Soils for Healthy Communities team is committed, but pretty lean.