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It's Smart to Subject Suspicious Soil to a Toxin Test

Q. Mike, we are considering buying a property where a previous owner had a lot of junk in the yard. (One area looks like car oil was spilled on it.) The current owner bought it in August, got rid of the junk and is now reselling. Before we agree to buy, we would like to test the soil in different areas to identify the extent of any damage (perimeter and depth) and what we would need to do for a remedy. We would also like to sample some random areas to determine what might not be so obvious. Here is where we need your help: We want good testing without spending a lot of money! Thanks!
----Tim & Donna; Willow Grove, PA

A. Smart. VERY smart. Years ago, a gardening friend of mine bought a property with some old railroad ties out back, and knew to be concerned about the chemicals used to preserve such wood. So instead of just the basic six buck soil test that PA offers to its residents, he went for the "Available Metals Test" ($30.), which checks for manganese, iron, copper, zinc, sodium, aluminum, lead, nickel, and cadmium too.

The report warned, "don't dare grow anything to eat--and don't let kids play there either." Lead. Lots of lead. Turns out there had been an auto repair shop there years before; and lead, like multiflora rose, is forever.

They did follow-up testing to determine where the 'edges' of contamination were and how deep it went. As a result, much of his damaged dirt (SO leaded it was legally toxic waste) had to be trucked away and replaced with mushroom soil. It was an unexpected expense, but, on the other hand, their kids didn't grow up with lead poisoning.

First step: Contact your local county Extension office (there's a list on the state's main website, and get a soil collection kit. For this first 'screening' test, do just as they suggest and combine several samples from different areas. Then, if the news is bad, you can test specific spots to try and determine the extent of the damage. The folks at the lab (at Penn State:; 814-863-3439) will be happy to help you come up with a plan. And their prices are going to be much lower than an 'outside', commercial testing service would charge.

Depending on what you find, the current owner may legally have to remediate the soil before he can sell the property. (He will at least have to disclose what you tell him to future buyers.) Or perhaps the two of you can work out some kind of agreement that reimburses you for fixing it. The cost of that fix will depend on what they find, what you intend to grow, whether you'll have kids playing out there and, of course, your personal level of risk tolerance.

Low-cost soil-testing is available to gardeners in almost every state. Just type the word "Extension" plus your state's name into a search engine to get started.

And Now's a Great Time for a Regular Soil Test Too!

The labs aren't busy this time of year (there can be long back-ups in the Spring), its better to correct any problems with organic amendments in the Fall, and it's a genuine bargain, For under ten bucks, you'll learn if your soil is too acidic or alkaline (its pH level), its levels of basic plant nutrients and more (every state's test is different). Just contact your local Extension office and they'll walk you through the process.

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