Working together to serve our communities through science.
Evaluate environmental quality and the potential exposure to contaminants of concern (COC) near active or legacy resource extraction and hazardous waste sites; Successfully communicate the study results to all participating individuals and families; Disseminate the results broadly in order to appropriately influence community prevention practices and environmental decision-making.
Community gardens have been incorporated into community-driven solutions for poverty and unemployment since the late 1800s; however, the concept of community gardens really didn’t take off in the U.S. until much later. In the 1970s, community gardens were recognized not just for their potential to enhance food supplies and maximize land use, but became a central focus for community groups looking to revamp neighborhoods and unite communities. They were recognized for their potential to educate, inspire, and provide creative outlets for at-risk youth. By 2013, 37 million households were estimated to have participated in food gardening at home, with another three million are growing food in community gardens.7
Today, the benefits of community gardens are acknowledged across the social spectrum, as they are repeatedly shown to increase access to wholesome foods, improve community building efforts, enhance emotional well-being, create green space, and reduce the cost of food. More than 18,000 community gardens now exist in the U.S. and Canada, and the USDA has estimated that approximately 8,268 farmers' markets are supported by local gardening efforts.
So what’s the challenge?
Gardens have been shown to be vulnerable to external stressors. With pollution, drought, and climate change representing an ever-increasing problem, environmental impacts to gardens from air and water represent a widespread concern. Soils can be a repository for society’s waste; a collection point for surface runoff and airborne deposition. Community revitalization and public health efforts could be diminished if gardens are unknowingly cultivated in environmentally compromised spaces.
Living in Environmentally Compromised Spaces, the truth hurts
One in four Americans lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site,1 of which there are roughly 355,000 in the U.S.2 Furthermore, the U.S. is home to more than 450,000 brownfieldssites, or former industrial properties deemed unsuitable for active use without reclamation and cleanup efforts.4 As if these numbers weren’t bleak enough, the U.S. is also home to approximately 550,000 abandoned mining sites, with more than 80,000 abandoned mines4 in Arizona alone. U.S. mining sites are linked to the generation of 45 billion tons of waste and are often encountered in arid and semiarid regions, such as Arizona. The dry and arid conditions of the Southwest drive dust emissions and can result in the long-range transport of metal-contaminated aerosols unearthed by historical mining operations, such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead.5, 6
Let us put two and two together
When the U.S. has community gardens plus hazardous waste and legacy mining sites, what do we get? A potential comingling of the two where some communities may be gardening in brownfield sites and near environmentally comprised areas.8,9,10 Hence, efforts are needed to investigate and evaluate the potential risks associated with growing food within the impact zone of resource extraction sites, as well as to balance the health benefits associated with eating affordable, available, locally grown food.
Citizen Science and Community Engaged Research
These types of environmental health issues are intricate and require capacity building, culturally sensitive strategies, and a trained population of scientists working at the local level. Representation is required for underserved communities if the decision-making process and lasting solutions are to be adequately shaped and developed. This type of local representation can be accomplished through a citizen science approach to research. Citizen Science is also recognized as an active conduit to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education (STEM) and is spurring the next generation of STEM leaders. President Obama’s call to action to create a "Nation of Makers" reflects these observations. In June 2015, the White House celebrated a "Week of Making" recognizing individuals who are using new tools and techniques to launch businesses, learning vital skills in STEM, and leading grassroots Do-It-Yourself initiatives.
With only a limited number of co-created citizen science projects ever completed, and with a minimal focus on risk communication, Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta developed and implemented her "Gardenroots: A Citizen Science Garden Project" in 2015. Building on the success of the site-specific, co-created citizen science project in Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona (2008 through 2012), Gardenroots now specifically characterizes the state of environmental quality in underserved rural communities. Efforts began by conducting environmental health needs assessments with Cooperative Extension agents and rural gardeners across Arizona. The project is now active in three Arizona counties (Apache, Cochise, Greenlee), evaluating the environmental quality in rural gardens. Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta has trained over 100 citizen scientists to properly collect samples, with more than 50 families submitting water, soil, plant, and/or dust samples for analysis and maintaining journals documenting their experiences and observations throughout the program. With a new federal mandate requiring every federal agency to dedicate resources to citizen science, her data will also be useful in propelling citizen science efforts forward and to determine whether such a project design: 1) co-produces data in a form directly relevant to the participant's lives, 2) increases the community’s involvement in environmental decision-making, and 3) improves environmental health education and literacy in underserved communities.
- Hazardous Waste Cleanup Observations on States’ Role, Liabilities at DOD and Hardrock Mining Sites, and Litigation Issues. US General Accounting Office. gao.gov/products/GAO-13-633T. Updated May 22, 2013. Accessed Feb 27, 2015.
- Cleaning Up the Nation’s Waste Sites: Markets and Technology Trends. USEPA clu-in.org/download/market/2004market.pdf. Updated 2004. Accessed Feb 27, 2015.
- Abandoned Mine Lands Team: Reference Notebook. USEPA. epa.gov/aml/tech/refntbk.htm. Updated August 9, 2011. Accessed Dec10 2015.
- Brownfields and Land Revitalization. USEPA. epa.gov/brownfields/basic_info.htm. Updated July16, 2012. Accessed April 10, 2015.
- Sorooshian A, Csavina J, Shingler T. Hygroscopic and chemical properties of aerosols collected near a copper smelter: implications for public and environmental health. Environ Sci Technol. 2012;46:9473-80. PMC3435440.
- Priority List of Hazardous Substances. ATSDR. atsdr.cdc.gov/SPL/. July 26 2014.
- National Gardening Survey. National Gardening Association. 2013. http://www.gardenresearch.com/home Accessed April 19 2015.
- Attanayake CP, Hettiarachchi GM, Harms A, Presley D., Martin S, Pierzynski GM. Field evaluations on soil plant transfer of lead from an urban garden soil. 2014. J Environ Quality. 2014;43:475-487.
- Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Beamer, P, Maier, RM. Home Gardening Near a Mining Site in an Arsenic-Endemic Region of Arizona: Assessing Arsenic Exposure Dose and Risk via Ingestion of Home Garden Vegetables, Soils, and Water. Sci Total Environ. 2013;454:373-82. PMC3871205.
- Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Artiola, JF, Maier, RM. A Greenhouse and Field-Based Study to Determine the Accumulation of Arsenic in Common Homegrown Vegetables. Sci Total Environ. 2013;443:299-306. PMC3649874.
- Conduct a needs assessment, align community need and interests with research expertise
- Recruit at the local level
- Provide training and informal science education activities for participants (refer to “events for upcoming activities)
- Citizen science gardeners: collect soils (native and garden), water, dust and vegetable samples of your choice
- Analyze water, soil, dust, and vegetable samples for the concentration of possible contaminants of concern
- Characterize the fate and transport of potential contaminants in environmental samples and possible uptake pattern by vegetables
- Compare measured contaminant concentrations with available reference values, federal standards, and/or screening levels
- Estimate potential exposure and/or characterize potential risk
- Co-design results communication materials with participants to then report results back to participants in an effective and meaningful way
- Provide personalized results and estimated risks that allow individual participants to make educated choices
- Generate a summary of community results to disseminate broadly
Reduce Arsenic Absorption by Vegetables
Test your soils
Before you amend, or grow anything, you should test your soils (once is only needed). Please refer to the Gardenroots Instructional Manual for soil collection methods. Please note that a safe soil arsenic standard for growing vegetables has not been established.
Some garden products may contain arsenic
Pay attention to the garden soil and amendments that you are using.
Iron in soils can reduce the available amount of arsenic
The iron and arsenic come together to form iron arsenate, a form of arsenic that is not well absorbed by vegetables. Please refer to AZ1415.
Place a barrier
You can put an impermeable barrier between the uncontaminated topsoil, and the underlying contaminated soil to reduce mixing, and remind you how deep to till. If you do this, you must provide for bed drainage.
pH is crucial
Keep your soils near the near the neutral zone (6.5-7.5).
The organic matter can help reduce how much a vegetable takes up. Apply at least a layer of organic matter 2 to 3 inches thick on the garden area about 1 to 2 months before planting. Please refer to AZ1435.
Build Containers or raised beds
Construct a container or raised bed using materials and soils low in arsenic and lead. For example, do not use arsenic treated lumber to construct raised beds. Make sure to test the bedding soils before planting.
Replace contaminated soils
This may require technical assistance and guidance from the AZ Department of Environmental Quality.
Arsenic and lead occur naturally in soils. It is impossible to grow plants completely free of arsenic and lead, but there are ways to reduce the amount that is available to, and taken up by your vegetables. Above are important recommended practices.
Reduce Incidental Soil Ingestion and Inhalation
Windy Days = No Gardening
Avoid gardening on windy days.
Avoid eating and drinking while you garden
Soils and dust might get on your food or in your drink, and you could accidental swallow it.
Keep soils moist while gardening to control dust
This will limit the amount of dust you inhale.
Designate a set of clothes and shoes for gardening use only
Keep your gardening clothes and shoes outside, or in a plastic bag outside. Try your best to keep your gardening clothes and shoes out of your home.
Consider wearing a mask in dusty environments.
Wash your hands and all exposed body surfaces after gardening.
Leave your shoes outside
Remove your shoes right before enter your home to avoid tracking soil into your home.
Mop floors with a damp mop, and wipe down surfaces in your home regularly. Change your vacuum bag more often, or upgrade your vacuum to one that has a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter.
Wash, and then store all your gardening tools outside.
You can greatly reduce your exposure to arsenic from your soil if you follow the suggestions above.
Safe Consumption of Homegrown Vegetables
Reduce Dietary Arsenic and Lead Ingestion
Wash your hands
After gardening, and before vegetable washing.
Once inside your home, wash your vegetables again using a scrub brush to remove remaining soil particles
Look at the shape of your vegetables - some can trap soil particles. For example, soil particles can get trapped in between the flower heads on broccoli, and leafy vegetables have large surface areas where soil can collect.
Mix it up
Eat vegetables from your garden, the grocery store and farmers' market. Eating a mixture of homegrown and store bought can help reduce your potential exposure.
Wash your vegetables before you bring them into the house
This act can reduce the amount of arsenic and lead on your vegetables, and what is transported into your home.
Pare and/or Peel
Pare and/or peel root and tuber crops like carrots, radishes, and potatoes. Make sure you throw the parings and peelings away.
Do not compost unused plant parts, peelings or parings for use in the garden
This act will reduce the recycling of arsenic and lead in your compost.
Arsenic and lead occur naturally in soils. Concentrations of arsenic and lead in soils may be 10 to 100 times greater than concentrations in the vegetables you grown in that soil. Because of this, it is crucial to remove soil particles that stick to your garden crops. Above are important recommended practices.
Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Brody JG, Lothrop N, Loh M, Beamer PI, Brown P. 2016. Improving Environmental Health Literacy and Justice through Environmental Exposure Results Communication. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8;13(7):690-717. PMID: 27399755.
Soleri D, Long JW, Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Eitemiller R, Pandya R. 2016. Finding Pathways to More Equitable and Productive Public-Scientist Partnerships. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 1(1):9, 1–11, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/cstp.46.
Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Brody J, Lothrop N, Loh M, Beamer P, Brown, P. 2016. Reporting Back Environmental Exposure Data and Free-Choice Learning. Environmental Health; (15)2, PMID: 26748908. *Recognized by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.
Hawes M, McLain J, Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Curlango-Rivera G, Flores-Lara Y, Brigham L. 2016. Extracellular Trapping of Soil Contaminants By Root Border Cells: New Insights into Plant Defense. Agronomy (6)5, DOI:10.3390/agronomy6010005.
Zarota OA, Brody JG, Brown P, Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Perovich L, Matz J. 2016. Balancing Benefits and Risks of Immortal Data: Participants’ Views of Open Consent in the Personal Genome Project. Hastings Center Report 46: 1-16, DOI: 10.1002/hast.523 * Featured on EurekAlert! operated by American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Moreno Ramirez D, Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Estrella-Sánchez R, Wolf AM, Kilungo A, Spitz AH, Betterton, EA. 2015. Pollution Prevention through Peer Education: A Community Health Worker and Small and Home-Based Business Initiative on the Arizona-Sonora Border. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12:11209-11226, DOI:10.3390/ijerph120911209.
Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Lothrop N, Wilkinson ST, Root R, Artiola JF, Klimecki W, Loh MM. 2015. Analyzing Patterns of Community Interest at a Legacy Mining Waste Site to Assess and Inform Environmental Health Literacy Efforts. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, DOI: 10.1007/s13412-015-0297-x.
Ramirez-Andreotta MD, Brusseau ML, Artiola JF, Maier RM, Gandolfi AJ. 2015. Building a Co-Created Citizen Science Program with Gardeners Neighboring a Superfund site: The Gardenroots Case Study. International Public Health Journal, 7(1):139-153, PMID: 25954473.
Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Artiola, JF, Maier, RM, Gandolfi, AJ. 2014. Environmental Research Translation: Enhancing Interactions with Communities at Contaminated Sites, Science of the Total Environment, 497-498:651–664, PMID: 25173762.
Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Beamer, P, Maier, RM. 2013. Home Gardening Near a Mining Site in an Arsenic-Endemic Region of Arizona: Assessing Arsenic Exposure Dose and Risk via Ingestion of Home Garden Vegetables, Soils, and Water. Science of the Total Environment, 454-455:373-82, PMID: 23562690.
Ramirez-Andreotta, MD, Brusseau, ML, Artiola, JF, Maier, RM. 2013. A Greenhouse and Field-Based Study to Determine the Accumulation of Arsenic in Common Homegrown Vegetables. Science of the Total Environment, 443, 299-306, PMID: 23201696.
Dr. Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta is an assistant professor of Soil, Water and Environmental Science (SWES) with a joint appointment in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona (UA). She is trained across various fields and is a transdisciplinary researcher in the purest sense. She received a B.A. degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a B.A. degree in Studio Art (Photography), and a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University. Her Ph.D. is from the UA in SWES (with a minor in Art) and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship with a renowned medical/environmental sociologist at Northeastern University.
Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta's research programs includes developing a fundamental understanding of the fate and transport of contaminants in the environment, with a primary focus on plant-soil systems and phytotechnologies to improve soil and air quality. In parallel, she is building citizen science programs to increase public participation in environmental health research, developing low cost environmental monitoring tools to improve exposure estimates, and designing effective risk communication and data report-back strategies to improve environmental health literacy.
Ramírez-Andreotta is dedicated to, and has been successful in reaching underserved populations. She has independently secured funding from the US EPA, Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct research while building community-academic partnerships. Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta’s philosophy is that in order to successfully engage communities and students, it is essential to address critical environmental health problems identified by the community, and then work collaboratively through the problem-solving and research process.