Community Gardens

This website concerns our work within the Duke University Superfund Research Center during its previous grant cycle from 2017-2022. Please feel free to access the resources that are here and reach out with any questions or comments:

Our partner NC Cooperative Extension Gardener Program now hosts our information and factsheets on their website! While the gardening pages of the Duke Superfund Community Engagement Core website will stay up, they will not continue to be updated. Visit NC Cooperative Extension Gardener Program for the most up to date information on soil contamination.

The Community Gardens project offers resources for garden managers, Extension agents, and Master Gardeners to identify, understand, and manage risks associated with soil contaminants that may be present in garden soils.

Explore the following pages for general information about soil contaminants, and what you can do to help limit exposure and health risks.

Soil contaminants

Soil contaminants are naturally occurring or human-made chemicals in soil that can have a negative impact on human and/or environmental health. Exposure is typically low, but gardeners can be exposed to soil contaminants through direct skin contact with the soil, inhaling or ingesting soil particles, and by eating contaminated produce.

Industrial land use, lead paint use, traffic pollution, runoff, and several other sources can introduce contaminants into nearby soils. Some contaminants can last in soils for many years after they are introduced. Learn more

Reducing my exposure

Unless your soil is heavily contaminated and requires clean-up, there are easy steps that can be taken to minimize exposure to lower levels of soil contaminants. Healthy Garden Habits are especially important for children, pregnant women, or those with preexisting health conditions who are spending time in your garden as they may be more susceptible to the health impacts of contaminants. Learn more

Health risks

Low levels of contaminants in soils do not usually present an immediate risk to human health. But some contaminants can build up in a person’s body over time can impact health, especially for children. In most cases, the benefits of gardening and growing your own food far outweigh the risks from soil contaminants. Learn more

Testing my garden soil

Typical soil nutrient testing (like the testing services offered by NCSU Cooperative Extension) do not include any tests for possible soil contaminants. Our soil test decision tool can help garden managers identify nearby sources of contaminants and whether additional testing for soil contaminants may be necessary. Learn more

Background Info

Some contaminants like lead, arsenic, and human-made chemicals can be introduced into soils from nearby sources of pollution and may remain in the soil for long periods of time. There is a higher chance of soil contamination in gardens located on land that was previously used for another purpose or located near older buildings, and some soils maybe high in arsenic or other metals due to the natural geology of the area.


Unfortunately, soil nutrient testing (like the services offered by Agricultural Extension) do not test for soil contaminants, and so gardeners are often unaware of the presence of soil contaminants. The Community Gardens project offers resources for garden managers to identify, understand, and manage risks from soil contaminants that may be present in garden soils.

Gardeners can come into contact with these contaminants by eating, touching, or breathing soil particles or contaminated produce, but this exposure is typically low compared to other sources of exposure. However, long-term contact with low levels of some contaminants can lead to illness. Some contaminants, like lead and mercury, also have the potential to affect the way children learn and develop.

Gardening is a fun and rewarding activity for all ages, and in most cases the risks from soil contaminants can be greatly reduced by adopting Healthy Garden Habits and smart garden management practices to limit exposure to soil contaminants.