Lead contamination research leads to safer soil in Liberty City

A recent student research project has led to safer soil in Liberty City.

Danielle Goveia has long been concerned with lead contamination in urban soils and how it could cause human toxicological problems through urban agriculture. Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be harmful to humans when consumed by inhaling or ingesting food grown in contaminated soils. While working on her master’s thesis as a student in the Department of Earth and Environment, Goveia decided to research soil in Liberty City, a low-income community of more than 5,000 families.

Danielle Goveia conducts research in a lab.

Danielle Goveia conducts research in a lab.

“I had known of FIU’s partnership with Miami Northwestern Senior High, and it seemed like a great fit for me to work in the same neighborhood where we already have such a good relationship with the people that live and work there,” Goveia said. “Community gardening has gained momentum, either as a pastime or as a solution to food security issues, so it’s important our community is educated and is provided good soil conditions.”

Using soil from an organic farm as a control and Malabar spinach, Goveia grew the plants in a greenhouse. She chose the spinach because lead tends to accumulate in leafy vegetables more than other plants. According to Goveia, the results from her greenhouse experiment showed the highest concentrations of lead were in the roots, which are non-edible in Malabar spinach. Lower concentrations were found in the plant’s edible tissues.

Goveia, together with her thesis professor Krish Jayachandran and the FIU Office of Engagement, presented the research findings to members of the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County. Jayachandran says county officials responded immediately to address the areas of concern, and follow-up testing shows no signs of contamination.

“As a public research institution, it’s important the university partner with the county in helping our local neighborhoods,” Jayachandran said. “This was a very good, positive thing. We hope to have provided the community a better solution and hope this serves as motivation to get our faculty more engaged with it.”

Goveia graduated with her master’s degree in 2013. She now works as a science interventionist at West Miami Middle School. She works with teachers in the classroom, providing one-on-one assistance to students who need it. She plans to pursue a career in public health.

“This was a great experience. It’s one thing to do research, find results and defend it in front of your colleagues, it’s another to get someone to take it one step further and actually do something about it,” Goveia said. “Contaminants in urban soils are a big deal and the issue needs more attention. If we want our kids and neighbors to be outdoors, physically active, and interacting with the environment, we need to make sure they are safe.”