When First Lady Michelle Obama decided to plant a vegetable garden at the White House, she faced a problem that many new homeowners in America run into. Previous residents of her house had applied sewage sludge to her lawn, but left no warnings to alert the her about the potential toxicity of her soil as a result of the sludge application. When the Obamas tested the soil in preparation for planting their garden, they found some lead in the soil. At 93 parts per million (ppm), the lead showed that the soil was probably contaminated by something, even though at 93 ppm the lead itself was not necessarily a danger. Still, the Obamas took precautions to further lower the lead level to 14ppm, and make the lead unavailable to plants by adding soil amendments that diluted the lead and changed the pH of the soil.
Unfortunately for the Obamas, and for the entire nation, once the story hit the news, it became politicized. While the issue was initially raised as a comment on the safety of using sewage sludge as fertilizer – an issue that has no political party – the right soon grabbed a hold of the story as a way to make fun of the Obamas. Some on the left fiercely defended the Obamas in return. But the Obamas are not the villains in this story; they are the victims. They are among many other Americans whose yards and gardens are contaminated with sewage sludge without their knowledge and who, as a result, are exposed to toxic contaminants in the soil. And lead is just a fraction of the overall problem.