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Gardening in Soil with Arsenic

Posted by: BillA on Aug 13, 2008 - 01:39 PM
Issues related to the RCRA process
From the DOH, EPA and DEC:

In a recent letter to the village, an EPA representative included some general recommendations which the Agencies may provide to an individual homeowner on ways to limit exposure and risk to arsenic. Avoiding consumption of homegrown vegetables was one general recommendation. This was not intended to be interpreted as a general recommendation to avoid gardening or consumption of homegrown produce in the Village of Middleport. Additionally, this was not intended to be a general recommendation that would be provided to all property owners who declined remediation of their property. As the EPA has said in the past, each property is specific and therefore, any recommendations that the Agencies may make to a property owner will likely be specific for their particular soil arsenic concentrations, location of elevated soil arsenic, property use etc.

Not all vegetables take up significant amounts of arsenic from soil. Additionally, for those crops that are more likely to uptake arsenic (leafy vegetables and root crops), the amount of potential arsenic uptake is dependent on many factors, such as soil acidity, organic matter, arsenic type etc. In many cases, the likely potential exposure route associated with gardening in arsenic contaminated soil is the ingestion of soil arsenic that may be present on homegrown produce (e.g. dirt on leaves, roots etc.) that has not been thoroughly washed before consumption. By taking a few simple and practical actions, people can reduce their potential exposure to soil arsenic. Thoroughly washing vegetables and other garden produce before eating, and peeling or skinning root crops, are practical ways to reduce exposure.

These and other practical actions are provided in the NYSDOH Arsenic Fact Sheet. Click on the Read Further link below to see the fact sheet.


Arsenic Fact Sheet
(Adapted from the A TSDR 2000 Toxicological Profile for Arsenic)

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth's crust. In the environment, arsenic is combined with oxygen, chlorine and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic in animals and plants combines with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds.

Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. In the past, inorganic arsenic was used in the production of pesticides such as lead arsenate and calcium arsenate. Organic arsenic compounds are also used as pesticides.

What happens to arsenic when it enters the environment?

  • Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment. It can only change its form.

  • Arsenic in air will settle to the ground or is washed out of the air by rain.

  • Many arsenic compounds can dissolve in water.

  • Fish and shellfish can accumulate arsenic, but the arsenic in fish is primarily in an organic form that is less harmful.

How might I be exposed to arsenic in soil?

  • Ingesting arsenic contaminated soil or dust.

  • Eating homegrown produce that has been grown in contaminated soils.

  • Direct skin contact with contaminated soil.

How can arsenic affect my health?

The likelihood that health effects will occur depends primarily on the level (how much) of exposure a person has to arsenic, and how long and how often they are exposed. Other important factors include how healthy the person is, his or her age, diet, gender, family traits and lifestyle. Differences in these factors can affect how people will respond to a given exposure.

Oral (ingestion) exposure to high levels of arsenic over short periods of time can irritate the stomach and the intestines, producing symptoms such as stomach ache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other effects which may occur from swallowing large amounts of arsenic include swelling of the face, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm and impaired nervous system function resulting in a "pins and needles" sensation in the hands and feet. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic in humans is associated with skin effects (warts, corns and darkening of the skin), nerve, liver and blood vessel damage, and an increased risk of skin, bladder and lung cancer. Chemicals, such as arsenic, that cause adverse health effects in humans after high levels of exposure may also pose a risk of adverse health effects in humans exposed to lower levels over long periods of time. The World Health Organization, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency classify inorganic arsenic as a human carcinogen.

How can arsenic affect children?

The types of health effects observed after exposure to high amounts of arsenic are generally expected to be similar in children and adults. Birth defects have been observed in animals exposed to inorganic arsenic. We do not know if exposure will result in birth defects or other developmental effects in people.

How can families reduce the risk of exposure to arsenic contaminated soil?

  • If you live in an area with high levels of arsenic in soil, limit your contact with soil.

  • Maintain a thick grass cover in yards, particularly in play areas.

  • Wash children's hands and face, especially before eating or drinking.

  • Wash your hands and face frequently, especially before eating or smoking.

  • Practice good housekeeping by damp mopping dusty surfaces and cleaning toys.

How can I reduce my exposure to arsenic from garden produce?

Anyone who has a vegetable garden may wish to take the following steps to reduce exposure to arsenic from garden produce.

  • If the soil is acidic, add lime to the garden to reduce the acidity. Acid soil increases the amount of arsenic available to plants.

  • Add organic matter such as compost or manure to garden soil. The organic matter binds arsenic and reduces the amount available to plants. An organic mulch (e.g. straw, grass clippings, wood chips) reduces the dust and the "splatter" of soil onto leafy vegetables from rain.

  • Because fruiting vegetables take up less arsenic from the soil than leafy vegetables or root crops, you may choose to grow more fruiting vegetables instead of leaf or root crops. Discard outer lower leaves or leafy crops and peel all root crops.

  • Thoroughly wash vegetables before eating to help remove any dirt that may contain arsenic. A little vinegar in the wash water removes arsenic more effectively.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to arsenic?

There are tests to measure the level of arsenic in blood, urine, hair, or fingernails. The urine test is the most reliable test for arsenic exposure within the last few days. Tests on hair and fingernails can measure exposure to high levels of arsenic over the past 6-12 months. Although these tests can determine if you have been exposed to above-average levels of arsenic, they cannot predict how the arsenic levels in your body will affect your health. ,Exposure to arsenic from other sources such as through ingestion of fish can increase the level of arsenic detected in medical tests.

For more information about arsenic you can contact:

Joseph P. Crua
New York State Dept. of Health
Bureau of Environmental Exposure Investigation
547 River Street - Room 300
Troy, NY 12180-2216
(800) 458-1158 ext. 27860

The Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE
Mailstop E-29
Atlanta, GA 30333
(888) 422-8137

P:\Bureau\Sites\Region_9\NIAGARA\932014\FMC Arsenic Fact

New York State Department of Health, June 2003
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