Milwaukee's Growing Healthy Soil for Healthy Communities” (GHSHC) project started in 2014 as a five-year Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program grant led by the Medical College of Wisconsin and Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, along with Walnut Way Conservation Corp., University of Wisconsin-Madison, and City of Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory (MHDL). The primary focus of the partnership, originally set to end December 2018 and subsequently extended through June 2019, was to address the public health issue of lead exposure through soil, particularly urban or backyard gardening. The aim was to demonstrate the effectiveness of soil and landscape interventions, enhance environmental health literacy education, expand access to soil testing partly through the creation and pilot of a community soil screening program at MHDL, and create awareness of environmental policy necessary to sustain real change in soil health and environmental lead exposure mitigation practices. The project was first piloted in Lindsay Heights and Kinnickinnic River neighborhoods located in the City of Milwaukee, which has an estimated population of 588,265 people. The City of Milwaukee is located within Milwaukee County, which comprises an estimated 944,483 people, based on 2020 census estimates. MHDL (www.milwaukee.gov/healthlab) sought to understand the total and bioavailable fraction of lead (and other toxic heavy metals) to help determine potential toxicity of soil upon exposure or intake through vegetables. MHDL validated the accuracy of Mehlich 3 method o extract the fraction of lead, potassium, and phosphorus from urban backyard soil samples that might be” available for plants' uptake. Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (FAAS) was utilized for the analysis of lead and potassium in urban backyard soil samples. This was critical for providing soil testing to residents served by the grant at the project's outset, eventually expanding to a public soil screening program, now serving Milwaukee County and beyond.
At its outset, GHSHC identified four objectives to be achieved by December 2018, including:
1. Best Practices in safe urban gardening informed by results from community-engaged research which tests the effectiveness of soil and landscape interventions implemented at 70-90 properties in Lindsay Heights and Kinnickinnic River neighborhoods.
2. Participating adults and youth (425 total) to complete environmental health literacy workshop/s to increase knowledge and intentions to practice safe gardening and engage in lead poisoning prevention action, including soil testing.
3. Stakeholders (Policy Professionals, Urban Gardening Institutions, and Urban Gardeners) to have increased understanding of implications of existing policies and institutional procedures surrounding urban residential gardening and to commit to engage in further policy formation and advancement to mitigate health risks associated with backyard gardening.
4. GHSHC partnership to expand to include Milwaukee Health Department by end of 2014, and Milwaukee County Extension by end of 2018, to increase public health capacity to reduce soil lead concentration and bioavailability in Milwaukee neighborhoods.
All objectives were met by the end of the grant, with measurable success achieved in conducting environmental health literacy workshops and performing soil screening and landscape interventions. Throughout the grant, 33 workshops were conducted with 534 individuals (295 adults and 239 children), exceeding target goals of reaching 425 adults and youth through 24 workshops. During the same time, 117 households consented to soil testing and landscape intervention, with 112 households receiving initial testing (37 from Lindsay Heights, 68 from Kinnickinnic, 7 from other neighborhoods), which again met and exceeded goals for Lindsay Heights and Kinnickinnic, respectively. During the grant-funded study period, MHDL analyzed 215 samples from the target neighborhoods. Further, a policy boot camp was conducted for community partners and residents, facilitating progress toward supporting policy formation associated with backyard gardening; engaging neighbors, policymakers, governmental organizations in discussions about relevant policies; and increasing understanding of implications of existing policies and practices by documenting how soil screening/testing decisions are made, what barriers exist to testing services, and what actions are taken based on knowledge gained. Other noteworthy community education included an Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) 2015 Annual Meeting poster (https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/healthAuthors/LAB/PDFs/Posters/APHLHealthySoilposterV2web1.pdf), an overview presentation by grant partners to the Wisconsin DNR Brownfield Study Group in May 2016 (https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Brownfields/documents/bsg/LeadStudyPresentation.pdf), and a Weston Roundtable lecture at UW-Madison Nelson Institute presented by MHD Public Health Laboratory Director Sanjib Bhattacharyya in October 2017 (https://nelson.wisc.edu/sage/weston-roundtable/weston-archives.php?year=2017). Milwaukee County Extension was engaged to provide expertise for environmental health literacy curriculum, assisting with planning a lead education dissemination event, and supporting safe gardening workshops conducted in 2018. The project culminated in June 2019 with a dissemination event, including a panel discussion with local and state leaders and elected officials in soil science, lead remediation, public health policy and lead poisoning prevention, and a community story-telling session about lead in the community.
The success of this project was built upon its innovative multi-level and multi-agency approach that creates action at the individual, community and societal levels to minimize lead exposure pathways from the environment. Community involvement, both from the residents in target neighborhoods and grant partners serving them, was critical to maintaining project momentum and achieving milestones throughout the duration of the project. Further, utilization of research gathered through soil screening, landscape intervention and follow-up in order to better inform and influence individual household members, institutional and regulatory policy at the societal level helped take the project to the next level, allowing the greater Milwaukee community to benefit.
Access to cost-effective soil screening services for nutrients and heavy metals (e.g. lead) in garden soil is limited in Milwaukee, due to minimal funding to maintain such public testing services for homeowners and urban gardeners. MHDL officially launched its community soil screening program in May 2018 and has continued to sustain it since grant funding ended, offering affordable soil screening at a per sample cost of $10 for lead screening, $15 for nutrient analysis (pH, soil conductivity, organic matter, phosphorus, potassium), or $25 for both. The program is available to the general public and has been utilized by residents in the greater Milwaukee area and beyond. Through December 2020, MHDL's community soil screening program has analyzed nearly 250 soil samples 37 for lead only, 118 for nutrient analysis, and 93 for both.