Soil Test Guidelines

Test your build site for lead and arsenic
Know the history of your build site and your level of risk
Resources for additional questions

Test your build site for lead and arsenic

Why?

A high presence of heavy metals in soil presents a health hazard to everyone, but especially to children age 6 and younger, who are more likely to ingest it during their time in the playspace. Lead in particular has been linked to nervous system damage, behavior and learning problems, and slow growth. The ingestion, absorption or inhalation of a hazardous toxin over a period of time is more likely to have a long-term permanent effect. Before digging or building on any site, the soil must be tested for, at a minimum, lead and arsenic.

When?

It can take 8-10 weeks to fix the site if lead or another heavy metal is found to be present. For this reason, do a soil test on your site in enough time to have the results by two weeks after Design Day. If you have had a soil test done in the past but more than one year has elapsed since it was performed, you should do a new test.

How?

The EPA sets national standards for the maximum level of lead and arsenic which is acceptable; however, these standards may vary from state to state.

The soil needs to be collected in the space where the playground will be located. You should be collecting at least two samples. These samples need to taken from 2 different locations within the area so that you are getting a good representation of the whole site.

When you are doing your test hole, take a sample from a depth 4” below the surface. When making arrangements with the testing entity, ask them how much soil is needed for each sample, what type of container needs to be used and how it needs to be delivered to the testing facility.

The soil testing company that you use will most likely not be able to interpret the results of the soil test. You will need to check with your state or local Department of Environment or Health Department. The local Cooperative Extension or local University may also be able to help with the interpretation of the results.

Soil tests dated less than 12 months prior to the Build Day are acceptable in most cases, but may not be permitted if there were significant environmental changes (such as flooding) in your area during the intervening period. Over the course of a year, there is a possibility that there may have been changes to the site that could impact the soil.

You should contact a local laboratory accredited in the testing of heavy metals to test your site, and compare the results to the applicable standards by contacting your county or state health department. It is important to make sure they can test for the presence of lead or arsenic in soil, rather than in water, dust, or on particular surfaces. The list of accredited laboratories is updated monthly. A link to the most recent list can be found here: http://www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/nllap.htm. It is located about halfway down the page, in the third paragraph of the section entitled “How does NLLAP work?” and is called the “monthly NLLAP list.”

You can also reach out to your local land grant university that will have an environmental or agricultural department or Cooperative Extension that may be able to conduct the tests. They may also be able to assist with getting the results analyzed.

What do I do if there is concrete or asphalt covering the area and we aren’t scheduled to excavate until 6 weeks into planning?

Regardless of the timeline for excavation, you will still need to collect your soil sample in time for the test to be completed within 2 weeks of the Design Day. Otherwise, if there is a delay in getting the soil test done and it turns out there is a problem with the soil, there may not be enough time to remediate the site before the Build Day. The asphalt or concrete can be taken out in a couple of places on the site to expose the soil so that a sample can be taken. This can be done in conjunction with the test hole that you will dig to get a sense of the scope of your site preparation needs.

If my soil has unsafe levels of arsenic or lead what should I do?

Heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, especially when they enter the soil through the air, are most often only found in the top two inches of the ground. For this reason, the best and quickest way to deal with a high level of lead or arsenic on a site is usually simply to remove this part of the soil and replace it with a healthy layer. You should speak with a local expert to determine the best way to dispose of contaminated soil. Consult with the owner of the site to find out the official protocol for remediation.

You must implement a remediation plan at least two weeks prior to Build Day. Once you have completed the plan, a subsequent soil test will need to be conducted and results provided to the planning team at least seven days before the scheduled Build Day.

If I’m doing a surface mount playground on asphalt or concrete, do I need to do a soil test?

You will still need to do a soil test around the periphery of the asphalt or concrete, since children will still come into contact with the soil throughout the wider playspace area. In addition, there is a possibility that holes will need to be dug for play enhancement projects such as permanent benches or posts for shade structures.

Can we use a home test kit instead of working with a laboratory?

You will need to work with a laboratory to perform your soil test. Most home test kits are designed to test surfaces, not soil, and do not give reliable results.

Cost?

When approaching the testing companies or local university, explain to them that you are planning to build a playground with your community and ask if they could donate their services or provide them at a reduced cost. The cost for the soil test varies greatly depending on the laboratory, but on average they can be $45 to $100 per sample.

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Know the history of your build site and your level of risk

Why?

The history of the land and past or present environmental threats in the area may indicate a high risk of finding heavy metals in your soil. Build sites that were once used for industrial purposes, or for orchards or farm land, or are situated close to industrial sites or major highways are at a higher risk for the presence of heavy metals.

How?

Lead may get into soil from such sources as leaded fuel in cars, lead-based paint chipping off old buildings, and incinerators. Arsenic is found naturally in the earth’s crust, but hazardous levels of arsenic are often the result of man-made situations and processes. Arsenic may get into soil from such sources as ash residue from power plants, smelting operations, industrial waste, or wood treated with Chromium Copper Arsenate (CCA). An old wooden playground on your site may very well be the cause of a hazardous situation and indicates a higher risk for the presence of arsenic.

Where?

Toxins may be found anywhere, but there are high-risk areas or regions throughout the United States:

  • Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and certain areas of Washington and Colorado have the highest number of facilities producing arsenic as a by-product.
  • Metropolitan areas are most vulnerable to lead exposure due to the high volume of cars that used leaded gasoline.
  • Any areas where there are old buildings that have lead-based paint on outside surfaces are more vulnerable to lead exposure.
  • Areas near industrial facilities such as power plants, smelting operations, and waste sites are more vulnerable to exposure to lead, arsenic, and other toxins.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a website where you can enter your zip code and determine if you are in a higher risk area. In addition to researching the history of your site, this website may help you to assess the likelihood of finding heavy metals in your soil, and may alert you to the need to test for other heavy metals besides lead and arsenic. It can be found at http://www.epa.gov/enviro/.

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Resources for additional questions

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