Chicago Safe Soils Initiative

Project Overview

In the Chicago metropolitan region, Illinois Extension and College of ACES researchers have identified hotspots of lead in soils being used for food production. This project developed open-access tools for the public to identify soil contamination, inform stakeholder decision-making, and develop evidence-based guidelines for managing soil lead risk to food production.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigators: Andrew Margenot, Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences; Zack Grant, Local Food Systems and Small Farms Extension Educator
  • Co-Principal Investigator: Nico Martin, Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences
  • Collaborators: Laura Calvert, Executive Director, Advocates for Urban Agriculture; Mark Clark, Clinical Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northwestern University

Project Results


For the first time, communities have access to a city-wide map showing how much lead is in the soil where they live.

Legacy lead, leftover from paint, gasoline, and other sources, lingers in the environment. Lead poisoning is a health concern for children and may cause delayed brain development. In high-risk areas, playing in mud puddles, running through dusty yards, and helping in the family garden can expose children to lead in the soil.

Mapping lead levels is also the first step in understanding contamination risks in urban food production says Andrew Margenot, assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at University of Illinois.

In 2018, Margenot partnered with Zack Grant, a University of Illinois Extension Local Foods Small Farms educator in Cook County, and Chicago-based Advocates for Urban Agriculture to gather soil samples as part of the Chicago Safe Soils Initiative. By offering free soil tests, they were able to map thousands of submitted and gathered samples from parkways and yards across the city.

Lead contamination is widespread across Chicago

The average amount of lead in the soil was 220 parts per million (ppm) which is 11 times higher than the natural level of 20 ppm. According to the study, 20% of the city’s soils are higher than 400 ppm.

Environmental agencies nationwide have different standards for what soil lead levels are a risk to human health. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency follows the federal EPA rate of 400 ppm, while the California EPA has a more cautious rate of 80 ppm.

Margenot suggests people use the lead map, available in the open-access publication or at, as a starting point. “If you’re in a hot spot, you’re probably going to want to invest in a $60 soil test for your yard, especially if you have a garden or any bare spots that could be kicking up dust which is an inhalation risk,” he says.

Soil contamination is an environmental justice issue

Some south-side neighborhoods had soil lead levels of more than 1,000 ppm. “This is the ugly story of industrialization in this county. A lot of Black Americans were forced to live in highly industrialized areas of the city which typically had high levels of contaminants in soil, water, and air,” Margenot says.

Mitigating risks for urban gardening and farming

With urban gardening and farming on the rise in Chicago, researchers also wanted to explore how much lead fruit and vegetables absorb from the soil. Current research-based recommendations focus on washing and peeling produce to remove dirt and dust from the surface, not the produce itself.

To test this, Margenot and Illinois Extension staff recruited local growers for on-site experiments. Researchers added the nutrient phosphate to the soil and planted tomatoes. The fruits from the phosphate-rich soils did not have different levels of lead, but the results show that food crops can be safely grown in high lead level soils, even up to 1,200 ppm. “We still don’t find detectable amounts of lead in the fruit that would prove a human health risk according to FAO/WHO,” Margenot says.

These results will direct future research on different crops and soils and eventually lead to new guidelines for growers.