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Soil contamination in community gardens of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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Community gardens have been seen sprouting up in and around urban settings such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the past several decades. Due to the long histories of industrial activities and urbanization, these soils in urban regions may be at a high risk for various contaminants such as metals and metalloids. Using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), we measured 7 elements (lead (Pb), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), vanadium (V), cadmium (Cd), nickel (Ni), and arsenic (As)) in soil samples collected from a total of 21 community gardens in Philadelphia City, Philadelphia suburban areas, and Pittsburgh City during September and October 2021. We found that the city areas in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had higher elemental concentrations in community garden soils compared to the suburbs. We found that all elements except vanadium were below the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) guidelines. When compared to more stringent Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) guidelines of a maximum of 140 mg/kg of lead in the soil, 36% percent of Philadelphia community gardens, 60% of Pittsburgh gardens, and 20% of the Philadelphia suburb gardens exceeded the CCME guideline. In Philadelphia city, generally, elemental concentrations exhibited a negative trend with increasing distance to historical smelter locations, although a significant correlation was observed for only zinc. We found that the soil from the raised beds had lower concentrations of lead and arsenic, but many of the samples from the raised beds had higher concentrations of zinc, copper, vanadium, and nickel. This discrepancy in raised beds is most likely attributed to these elements being actively deposited in the soil from present day sources such as vehicles on the road and active industrial sites. Understanding and recognizing such variations of these contaminants in community gardens are essential to understanding how industrial legacies and modern pollution continue to put urban communities at a disproportionate risk of health impacts.

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At the Department of Geography and the Environment (GEV), we appreciate the assistance of Camila Silva and Erin Johnson for the help with ICP-analysis and Michele Gandy and Jennifer Santoro for the help with GIS analysis. We also thank Dr. Nathaniel Weston and Dr. Peleg Kremer of GEV, Marlana Moore of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, Heidi Barr of Kitchen Garden Series, and all gardens who provided soil samples.

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Conceptualization: Olivia Bassetti and Kabindra Shakya; data collection and lab analysis: Olivia Bassetti and Rebecca McDonough; data analysis: Olivia Bassetti and Kabindra Shakya; original manuscript: Olivia Bassetti; review and editing: Olivia Bassetti, Rebecca McDonough, and Kabindra Shakya; supervision: Kabindra Shakya.

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Correspondence to Kabindra M. Shakya.

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Bassetti, O.G., McDonough, R.A. & Shakya, K.M. Soil contamination in community gardens of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Environ Monit Assess 195, 782 (2023).

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