Buffalo HealthCast

Urban Agriculture, Food Contamination, and Food Insecurity

February 02, 2023 University at Buffalo Public Health and Health Professions Season 2 Episode 5
Buffalo HealthCast
Urban Agriculture, Food Contamination, and Food Insecurity
Show Notes Transcript

Join Master of Public Health students, Sarah Robinson and Leah Bargnesi, as they interview Dr. Prathima Nalam, Dr. Anna Paltseva, and Jeanette Koncikowski on their joint project tackling lead contamination in urban soil.  These three experts are working together to use natural resources like mycelium, the root-like structure of a fungus, to absorb lead contamination and make urban gardening and farming safe in the Buffalo community.
Dr. Prathima Nalam, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Design and Innovation in University at Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  Her research focuses on tribology, soft mechanics, surface and interfacial forces, and atomic force microscopy.
Dr. Anna Paltseva, PhD, is an urban soil scientist who has researched urban soil contamination and remediation for over 8 years.  She is currently a member of the faculty team at the School of Geosciences at the University of Lousiana at LaFayette.  Her mission is to educate communities about the critical importance of soil health for growing nutritious food and medicine, for supporting healthy ecosystems, and for helping to sequester harmful greenhouse gases. 
Jeanette Koncikowski joined Grassroots Gardens of Western New York as their Executive Director in May 2018. She is a long-time community educator and activist, bringing almost 20 years of experience with nonprofit organizations in human services.  Jeanette believes it is essential that all neighborhoods and families in Western New York benefit from our region’s revitalization and that everyone has a right to healthy, affordable and accessible food. Community gardens should be the cornerstones of such efforts as they provide nourishment for our bodies and spirits.

Can a fungus help to clean up lead-contaminated soil: https://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2022/01/019.html
Send soil samples to Dr. Paltseva's lab: https://geos.louisiana.edu/soils-lab
Grassroots Gardens of Western New York: https://www.grassrootsgardens.org/

Host/Writers: Sibaridibo Banuna, Leah Bargnesi, Sarah Robinson
Guests: Jeanette Koncikowski, Dr. Prathima Nalam, PhD, Dr. Anna Paltseva, PhD
Production Assistant/Audio Editor: Sarah Robinson
Theme Music: Sungmin Shin, DMA

This episode was produced as a final project in Dr. Katarzyna Kordas' Global Health class, a graduate-level course offered at the University at Buffalo. 

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Intro  0:01 
Welcome to Buffalo HealthCast, the official health equity podcast of the University at Buffalo's School of Public Health and Health Professions. In this podcast, we cover topics related to health equity in Buffalo, the US and globally. This season, we'll take a look at food insecurity and health equity on a global scale. You'll hear from experts around the world who specialize in areas like urban agriculture and food contamination, soil science, food sovereignty, refugee health, intensive agriculture, and more. This season's episodes were completed in Dr. Kasia Kordas' Global Health Class, a graduate level course offered at the University of Buffalo, and produced by the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Sarah Robinson  0:55 

Welcome to another episode of Buffalo HealthCast. We are your cohosts, Sarah Robinson,

Leah Bargnesi  1:01  
and Leah Bargnesi.

Sarah Robinson  1:02 
Today, we have with us three fantastic experts in the areas of food contamination, urban agriculture and food insecurity.

Leah Bargnesi  1:09 
Dr. Prathima Nalam is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Design and Innovation in the University at Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Her research focuses on tribology, soft mechanics, surface and interfacial forces, and atomic force microscopy.

Sarah Robinson  1:26 
We also have Dr. Anna Paltseva with us, who is currently an international urban soil scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the School of Geosciences. Dr. Paltseva's expertise lies in urban soil contamination and remediation of urban gardens.

Leah Bargnesi  1:43 
Finally, Jeanette Koncikowski has joined us. Jeanette currently serves as Executive Director of Grassroots Gardens of Western New York. Grassroot Gardens of Western New York is a dedicated group of community gardeners and activists with the mission to share knowledge, power, and resources to grow healthy food, heal systemic harm, and strengthen neighborhood connections in Western New York through community gardens. Our three experts are all working together on a project related to soil contamination. So tell us about the project, what questions are you trying to answer? And what does this research entail? Dr. Nalam, if you want to start?

Dr. Prathima Nalam  2:15 
So, we are looking at the health of the soil, that we believe that the health of the soil is directly related to our health and only all the urban activities that we have been doing from centuries, from the time that we have started using lead paints, or we have used - or we used quite a bit of unleaded petrol and all these things. So all our activities have slowly contaminated urban soil specifically, with lots of contaminants. And there are different kinds of contaminants; organic, inorganic, and this specific project we're looking at inorganic contaminants such as lead, which is a heavy metal, and we are looking at sustainable ways to remediate them. And the concept that we are trying to use here is to get inspired from nature, which actually uses mycelium, which are nothing but the root part of mushroom. We are using that root tissue and making them into membranes, trying to remove lead from the soil. So that's the overall theme of the project.

Sarah Robinson  3:27 
That's so interesting. And the thing that we loved about this project and about why it's so unique, because you all come from such different disciplines. Can you all explain a little bit what your roles are in this project, and how you're sort of working together with your own expertise to bring it together and conduct your research. Dr. Paltseva, do you want to talk about your role a little bit?

Dr. Anna Paltseva  3:47 
Sure. I got involved in this project because originally, the researchers from University at Buffalo reached out to Dr. Howard Mielke in New Orleans, who is a well known researcher on lead poisoning in children and soil lead, and he referred the research team to me because he recently retired and I sort of inherited his lab from Tulane University. So I was really interested in this idea because I think it's so unique to use this mycelium, and it's in New York, which I have a personal connection, I used to live in New York City. So I definitely was interested to participate and get to know other researchers because this is not just, you know, typical scientists you work with. It's different expertise. And we all work on the same issue from different angles and we learn from each other. So in my role, it's mostly soil testing. I would test the soils before the treatments and we will do more in Spring and in the coming years after the treatments and actually see the efficacy, how effective the remediation is, and we will test for different soil parameters, but most important ones is to see lead concentration. So what they were before, what they were after, and eventually we'll develop recommendations for practitioners.

Sarah Robinson  5:13 
And Dr. Nalam, can you talk a little bit about your role?

Dr. Prathima Nalam  5:15 
Yeah, sure. So I come into this project as a material scientist. So we are basically looking for new materials or developing new materials that can do several - it can be from electronics to semiconductors to anything, but I was specifically interested in creating new filtration membranes to remove toxins from the environment. So it could be in water or soil. And I specifically got interested in mycelium because there is a Western New York company that works on producing mycelium materials in a very large scale. So I was wondering, why not, and they were using it for basically packaging and also for acoustic and thermal insulations and stuff like that. So my idea was that mycelium, as such we know is such a good toxin remover in nature. Can we use this dry mycelium now that it is more easily transportable, we cannot grow lye mycelium everywhere, let's say. But once you dry them out, then they're easy to package, easy to go around, and then the whole idea started that, can we now start using them as filters, and Buffalo has been the hotspot for lead. And this immediately connected us, especially when he was talking with Kasia on this. And we thought that this is something that we should address, and this went into the soil study. And we also work with Janet to do a much more broader impact of this activity. So that's how I came in.

Sarah Robinson  6:51 
Great. And then Jeanette. first off, can you tell us a little bit about Grassroot Gardens? What is it and how does it interact with the community in Buffalo?

Jeanette Koncikowski  6:59 
Sure. So Grassroots Gardens is Buffalo-Niagara's community gardening organization. We're an advocacy organization. There are - this season, this past season, there were 107 community and school gardens in our network. And we really exist to be able to advocate for the community gardens, to be able to help fund the community gardens, to help start new community gardens. So we really act as a facilitator between the community, the land, most of which is currently leased through the City of Buffalo or the City of Niagara Falls, we garden in both cities. And then, you know, really working with residents to build the gardens in their neighborhoods, in their schools in the way in which they want to manage them and run them. And Grassroots, one of the things that, you know, the community manages the day to day of the community garden, so we don't get involved in like, how was in the garden set up? Who's doing what, who's watering, who's weeding, what food are you growing, but we, because of our lease with the cities, are asked to monitor for food safety, and to make sure that the materials that are being used are safe, so that food is not contaminated. And so that is one of the many things that we do at Grassroots Gardens, is just kind of act as that facilitator and that educator around food, and things like lead contamination, because we are growing on lots that most likely have some level of lead contamination. And we've had lots in the city where, you know, you can have one right next to another and one will have heavy lead contamination, and another won't. It really depends on the very specific history of the housing that was on that vacant land. And so one of the things that we do to prevent that, obviously, like many urban gardens, is we grow above ground in raised beds, and there's always a barrier level between the ground and soil. And so we're using, you know, nonpressure-treated lumber, we're using organic soil, raising organic seed, really trying to make the food that grows as healthy as possible for the community members that are consuming it.

Sarah Robinson  8:56 
And then what about this project? How did you get involved in it?

Jeanette Koncikowski  8:59 
Yeah, so we have long been a partner with the University at Buffalo School of Public Health, and already had some connections to various partners there, and I believe when Dr. Kordas approached us, it was through a referral from Dr. Samina Raja at the UB Food Lab, who was also a primary partner of ours. And Dr. Raja and her students have been a longtime evaluator of Grassroots Gardens. And so we were all kind of connected and found out about their interest in studying lead in the soil and one of the things that, you know, and then the remediation through the mycelium, which is really cool, because what better way to deal with contamination than through nature? And one of the things that I was really personally excited about as an alumni of the University is that UB has a commitment to applied research and so not just doing research for the sake of doing research, but research to improve people's lives, research to make sure that there is an impact in the community. And so we were approached about partnering with them, and kind of just first as a, you know, a way to learn for the researchers involved, to learn about kind of boots on the ground, what happens in terms of gardening and urban ag around soil? And what are some of our gardeners' concerns about the soil? And then from there, we really were able to kind of grow a plan to add a public education component to this project. And so there is the research project, and then there is also the opportunity to use the research project to educate the community about everything from, you know, just safe urban gardening practices, to how does lead get in the soil, to what is the possibilities for remediation?

Sarah Robinson  10:37 
Dr. Paltseva, so you've done a lot of research about lead and soil. Can you tell us about what effects lead exposure actually has on human health? And how common are these exposures? How concerned should we be about them, especially in an urban setting? And how are we seeing the effects of them today?

Dr. Anna Paltseva  10:54 
Definitely lead exposure has been drastically decreased since 20th century, when it was really serious issues and lead was everywhere, in the gasoline and lead paint, but the legacy of that deposition in the air or new soil is still present. So what used to be emitted into the air or painted on the walls is now going down to the soil. And this is why partially Buffalo has such issues, or any other big cities in the US or in the world. So it's really, there is a relationship between the size of the city and how much industry was there, roads, and of course, you know, how many people live there in older buildings or buildings that are painted with lead, before 1978, and if those homes were remediated after this or not. Were they repainted or was any cleanup done? The dust that falls off this paint gets to the soil. And when children play in the soil, they inhale it or maybe ingest it through their fingers. And this is where the biggest problem lies, it's mostly for children. Kids are way more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults. Adults, of course, can still get exposed, but it's maybe more through their occupations. And if they are, you know, working in the condition when they do not protect themselves, or they don't know about the contamination and they're working in those fields. But in most cities, we're really concerned about children and the playground areas or gardens, backyard gardens versus public places, and previous research in New York City show that the private yards, backyards, have more contamination of lead than public areas. Because in public areas, different organizations, nonprofit organizations, Department of Parks and Recreation, they constantly change soil, the lawn, maybe they add mulch, compost or do some sort of introduction of a new material. And it helps to bring down the previous contamination to very low levels. But in private yards, people very often don't know, especially if it's a new buyer, and they don't know anything about the land history of this home or overall about the neighborhood. And they have little children. So one of the things is really to learn what was done before in this plot, and test and then we'll find the recommendations for the families, what would be the best solution for them. But it's really a big problem. It's everywhere. The homeowner can become researchers, by, like, studying the history of the lot and simply send the samples to the labs and see what it is because as Jeanette was saying, one plot can be different from another plot. And it's really hard to know unless you do a little bit of investigation. Very often the inner cities, inner part of the cities like downtowns, or where the industries were, you would find and have high concentrations and when it gets closer to suburbs, you will see less contamination. It's a very typical pattern for big cities. So it's high in inner cities and drops close to outskirts.

Leah Bargnesi  14:18 
Dr. Paltseva, can you explain what bioavailability is? And if that is something that heightens contamination from produce that's grown in urban farming?

Dr. Anna Paltseva  14:30 
Good question. So bioavailability is really a fraction of toxins in metal, in our case it's lead, that can harm a human body, or even a plant depending how you define bioavailability. Some researchers refer to humans and plants. Some say phyto-availability for plants and bioavailability for animals. In simple words, it's the fraction that can be toxic for humans and bioavailability of lead, specifically, will be determined by different phases or different chemical presence of this metal, like what form will lead exist in. If it's a lead carbonate or lead oxide, it may be much easier to dissolve, can be uptaken by humans much easier. But if it's lead sulfites or phosphates or combined with organic matter, it will be less bioavailable. When we test soil, we typically test for total concentrations, and it gives us the overall all forms of lead. We don't know if it's oxides, carbonates, phosphates or anything else. But when we study bioavailability, it suggests what is the harmful portion of this total availability, total concentration. And it's, we don't always seek a relation between bioavailability and total concentrations, because again, you may have very high concentrations, total concentrations in the soil. But maybe it exists in the lead phosphate form. And the bioavailability is very low, and people will not be exposed to it, like so it gets to the human body, it does not dissolve very easily, lead from phosphates, and it just goes through the human body, and that's it. But if it's another more diluted or soluble form, then it can be transferred in the body in the blood for like 28 days and then goes to bones and goes to brain if there is not enough calcium. If the calcium was present, especially in children, then again, it may not be taken up by bones and goes through the human body. So what we really want to ideally study is bioavailability of metals in the soil. But there is a trick to it, because it's hard to study. Bioavailability is typically studied on the animal trials. So it's when they take contaminated soil and feed it to an animal. And then they have to test the urine, blood, kidney and see what the uptake is. It's unethical, time consuming, very expensive. So scientists came up with different alternative methods. And that was my research, it was based in New York, is to study the bioaccessibility, which is done in the lab. And it's a proxy for bioavailability. When we create solutions that mimic gastric system at different pH, and we basically do extractions of lead, mimicking or simulating what could be done in a human stomach, there are also limitations to those methods as well, we do the best we can. But it's really, if people can invest and send it to a lab, there are only several labs in the country, I think that offer this to people, but do some bio accessibility tests, it would be good to know not just the low concentrations, but also what is the harmful portion of it. And that's what basically bioavailability or accessibility is - the harmful portion toxic for people. But plants have different response to contamination as well. It depends what type of plants not just because it's lead or arsenic or cadmium is in the soil, doesn't mean that we will transport into the food because it will depend on the type of the plant. Fruit vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, squash that grow further from the soil and have the tall - they have physiological barriers inside of the plants. So it prevents from contaminant to go into the fruit. But if its root vegetables, they have very weak physiological barriers, and there is a high chance of uptake into the root vegetable. And then there are also leafy greens and herbs. They can also get contamination but from a different mechanism. It's through splashes from surrounding areas. It's not necessarily uptake, it's really because they're short planes, and they get dust deposits from, like, after rain or during rain. So it's just adhesion, it's very hard to wash off particles that's on the surface. Washing helps, but doesn't completely wash off contaminants. So this bioavailability for plants or food production will be different depending on the plant type and also how far it grows from contaminated soil.

Leah Bargnesi  19:26 
Thank you. So on that note, Jeanette, can you speak more on if contamination and pollution have been an issue with the food produced your community gardens? And if so, how have these issues been solved?

Jeanette Koncikowski  19:38 
Yes, so every urban garden in any city anywhere around the country, or around the globe really needs to be concerned about lead in the soil while we are bringing in imported soil, meaning we're purchasing clean, tested, lead-free soil. In our case, we get organic soil from a vendor that is able to deliver to both cities where we have our gardens, you know, we know that the soil that is coming in is clean. The question remains, you know, as Dr. Paltseva just said about the contamination from the lot itself, so the ground soil that is there that you're walking on, you know, when there's rain, are you kicking that up? If it's a dry, dusty day, are you kicking that lead up? And is that getting into the soils? So we actually changed our, you know, over the years, as we've learned more and more about soil contamination and how to prevent it, we have changed the size of our raised beds, you know, originally they were six inches, now they are 12 inches minimum, we recommend 18 inches as our kind of gold standard for trying to just raise up the height of the beds. And this, you know, there's no way to 100% prevent contamination, or to even necessarily test all the gardens, you know, we have 107 gardens. So while we do soil testing, we tried to test at least five gardens a year both for the ground soil and the soil inside the beds, as part of our commitment to soil safety. And we are part of the Greater Buffalo Urban Growers. We are the only non-farm partners. So it's mostly urban farmers, and they have, locally, a pledge to save soils and to soil testing. And so as part of our commitment to being in that coalition, we do try to test at least five gardens a year. We have some gardens, some of our oldest gardens, a handful that are able to grow safely in ground because they have done years and years of extensive soil remediation, and we've been able to test that soil over the years to see that their lot soil is clean. We had one garden that's in phytoremediation with sunflowers for three years before they planted and that successfully cleaned the contamination that was in the soil, so it can be done. But as kind of a default, we have to have everyone grow in materials that we provide. So Grassroots Gardens has a preferred lumber provider, we don't want, you know, a lot of people we understand, obviously, with a focus on recycling want to do things like, why can't I just recycle a pallet that I have and make that a raised bed? Well, if you're growing food, that pallet can also have contamination. And so, you know, from chemicals, and we don't want that then getting into your foods. So we try to provide all the materials that a community garden needs to get growing safely. And then we also provide that education. So a lot of our gardeners, you know, everyone wants to get their hands in the dirt. And that's beautiful. And it's a great feeling. And you need to have gloves on to do that safely. Right. And you need to be able to wash your hands as soon as you leave the garden. You need to be able to, if you're coming home, you know, I have a rule in my house because I work in gardens all day long: nobody wears their shoes in the house. They get left outside on the stoop so that we're not tracking, you know, that potential lead from a lot into our home and then getting contaminated with it that way. So I think a lot of it is just public education. We work with a lot of community members that are new to Buffalo, and are not aware of the city's industrial past, are not aware that a lot of the vacant land that their current house was built on may have had a house demolished in the past that probably had lead paint that got into the soil. And so we definitely see, you know, Buffalo has high lead tracks in certain zip codes, where we know there's even greater contamination and for our gardens in those neighborhoods, we are especially focused on community education to let people know. We also have a fiscally sponsored project called Buffalo Freedom Gardens that started during COVID as a rapid response to COVID and builds residential gardens in people's homes. And as we have sold through that project, we provide a raised bed to a family, we provide the safe soil, we provide the seeds and the seedlings. Buffalo Freedom Gardens, Ms. Gail Wells, who runs that, has been a longtime Grassroots Gardener does all of that. We help fund it and get the supplies purchased for her and help distribute them. And one of the things we've noticed in going into people's homes and in their backyards and front yards, you know, everybody that's a gardener wants to show off the garden they have, if they've done it before, we do see a lot of people both that are new Americans and that are native Buffalonians that are growing in their backyards or front yards because they need food. And so that's always also an opportunity to make sure people know why the raised bed is important. Where they can access additional funding for raised beds or how they can build them more affordably so that they have a chance to learn about, you know, are you aware that there might be lead in that soil? Have you had your children tested for lead? Is that something your family's concerned about? And sometimes we will hear about people's stories that oh, this person did did have high lead testing when they were two. And so we just want to encourage people as we're meeting them and talking about gardening and soil safety, find healthier ways to do it. And there's often you know, a financial cost to that. And that's one of the things that Buffalo Freedom Gardens and Grassroots Gardens tries to do is we don't want there to be a financial burden for people to be healthy and to be able to grow food free of charge. We believe food is a human right, and there shouldn't be a cost to it and everyone should be able to grow Food as they need to. And in order to do that, you have to have lumber that can run, you know, if you're buying cedar lumber, it can run $250 right now for a four by eight bed, then you're adding organic soil, the cost of organic seeds, it can get very expensive very quickly to grow the healthiest possible, even when you're putting in your own labor. So we really try to work with the community not just to provide the education, but to provide those materials so that people can grow in the ways they want to at home and grow foods that are important to them.

Sarah Robinson  25:23 
That's so interesting. I grew up in the suburbs. And this isn't anything that I've ever thought about, like the importance of raised soil beds, not something I've ever ever thought about. So are all the gardens for Grassroots Gardens at least, they're required to be raised soil beds, or do you just test the soil in areas where it's not, they are. All right.

Jeanette Koncikowski  25:47 
So all new gardens have to use either mounded, meaning they have to have, you know, an 18 inch mound of soil, which like if they're growing a fruit tree, for example, we know that fruit trees tend to not take up lead into the fruit very often. But in that case, it still has to be a mound of soil just for kind of like added safety, or we're giving them lumber for the raised beds. We have started in some of the gardens switching to different kinds of metal containers, stainless steel, things like that, that we've been testing. But almost all of our gardens, you'll see four by eight, four by four raised bed lumber beds. And then there are just a handful of gardens that have been around, our garden network this year, our oldest gardens are 30 years old, and the organization is 27. The gardens actually predate the start of the organization. So for some of our oldest gardens, where they have been composting for 30 years, that soil has been tested and has been found to be clean. But even there, most of the gardeners are still choosing raised beds because it makes our lives easier. Right. Permaculture is a great way to garden, but it also means you're getting down into the ground. And we have a lot of seniors that garden with us that that's just really not an option for them anymore. So we've been more and more trying to raise and receive funding to do elevated raised beds that are actually, you know, four feet off the ground. One, it's better for the soil contamination because there's less chance of the dust coming up for feet. And then two, for accessibility purposes. They're easier to work with.

Sarah Robinson  27:15 
All right, great. Thank you. So interesting. Never ever thought about that. All right. And so Dr. Nalam, for the study that you're all collaborating on, mycelium is used to remediate lead in Buffalo soils. Can you tell us a little bit about what mycelium is and what your findings are?

Dr. Prathima Nalam  27:31 
Yes, so mycelium is the root part of mushroom, whatever mushrooms that we see when we're walking in the woods are actually the fruiting bodies, that's just probably 1,000,000th of the entire plant that is inside a fungus that is inside the inside the soil. And fungal networks are known to spread as the neurons spread in our brain, so they're all interconnected and criss crossed. And they have a lot of symbiosis effect with all the plants, microorganisms that are there in the surroundings. So they are known best for absorbing anything that's surrounding them. If it's dead creatures or toxin materials or nutrients, they tend to assimilate them and then kind of remediate them from that environment in this process. They can also sense sort of chemical gradients within the soil. And if there is someplace where they need more nutrients or if there is a need for nourishment, they can actually transport nutrients to make things more homogeneous in the entire network. So we already know that lye mycelium, lye fungi are very good toxin removers. But as I said, not everyone can grow mushrooms in their backyard, especially in Buffalo, half of the time, it's cold and we need usually damp, dark conditions to grow mushrooms. So this, even though it's such a sustainable option, and a cheap option and an environmentally friendly option, it's just that not everyone is exploring growing mushrooms first and then mushrooms are very choosy, where they want to grow and how much they want to grow. So this actually led us to thinking that can we now actually make materials out of them, like a biomaterial out of them, so that we can easily transport and move them anywhere we want. Let's say, like Jeanette said, we have these raised beds or we have our own backyard soil. So can we insert these sheets of mycelium in these beds or in topsoil and then insert into the topsoil and then leave it for some time so that the mycelium does the whole detracting the lead from the soil and then later on we carefully remove it out and then we dispose it. We dispose it off in such a way we could use our own backyard soil for growing vegetables and stuff. So this brought us many fundamental questions. So though, there has been research on how mycelium assimilates all these heavy metals, it basically works with lots of proteins that are there on its cell wall, it works with lots of enzymes that it kind of generates. And they basically and endocytosis means like, they kind of eat it literally, eat it into themselves and the cell, inside the cell, they get disintegrated. So, but it's no longer alive, when we are drying it, when I say dry, it means we literally bake them to a very high temperature around 80 degrees and above. And so the all the live cells are dead, but what stays behind is the rich network of proteins on the top of these fibers, and those contribute to a lot of absorption of these lead ions from their environment, whether it's from water, whether it's from soil, they can absorb the lead, and they can - it's kind of you sticking them, kind of a thing. So, the question was, are these proteins still are active to do such a process once they are dried? And if so, what is the efficiency for them to do it? And can we do something or can we now even now modify or treat these membranes such that we can actually convert this lead into forms like what Anna just said, into like phosphates or stuff like that, so that we reduced the bioavailability to the animals and stuff like that. So, these were fundamental research questions that we wanted to ask even before we deploy them in the soil. And in that process, we have been trying to play around understanding what kind of proteins are still there and what was the capacity of absorption and we also now started treating other membranes with the phosphate solutions and then expose it to lead and we got more than 90 to 95% of remediation of lead from a solution, but that means a water based system. And what we also did is also a big factor that play a role is the concentration of the light, like Anna said, there are - there can be different concentrations of lead depending upon where the lot is and then what was the prehistory of the lot is and also, and each soil have their own pH of the soil, and they all impact how efficiently these proteins will now interact with the lead. So, we wanted to understand all these parameters systematically in laboratory conditions to know that what involved mechanisms really involve and which of the mechanisms have the most remediation efficiencies. So, once we identify them, then we can use those treated membranes and then can start deploying them into the soil and see that how effective we are in the soil. So, this is where we are currently also in the project that we finished our initial studies in the laboratory studies and we have identified two mechanisms and as I said, one mechanism is bioabsorption. So individual lead ion if it is available, they could come and directly attached to these proteins, but we also add the specific metals, specific compounds like phosphate, which we usually add anyway, so you know what nutrients, so phosphate is not something you're adding out of ordinary or something. So these phosphates end up making crystallize of lead so we can get phosphates and lead carbonate crystals. And now we are trapping those crystals onto this membrane. And then this way, in both these processes, we saw that if we combine them we get the highest efficiency of remediation.

Leah Bargnesi  34:02 
That's really amazing. Can you, Dr. Nalam, I know that you use microscopy imaging, can you explain what that is and how it's used in this study?

Dr. Prathima Nalam  34:10 
Yes. So, we use scanning electron microscopy, which is, if you know the regular optical microscope, you're shining through light to do that, and then you see any features that you want to see, but these fibers, the mycelium fibers are as thin as your hair or even thinner than that. So, if you want to see what kind of interactions are happening and how is lead getting deposited on them, you no longer can use optical microscopes. So we actually use this more high resolution microscope called scanning electron microscope where instead of light, we now bombard the sample with electrons, beam of electrons, and that helps us to give a very high resolution image of the mycelium and we try to see the images with just pure, as I said, bio adsorption where we don't add any other additional phosphate or when we add phosphate we see this crystal growth happening. So, we can understand at what concentrations how much crystal growth is occurring, what are the rates of these crystal growth and also what is the percentage of the mycelium is getting covered with lead. So, we can map all those things, which can all help us to determine the efficiency the performance of a specific mechanism that we are trying to look at.

Leah Bargnesi  35:34 
And I know Dr. Nalam, you spoke on this a little bit already but is there a possibility for mycelium to be used to remediate other heavy metals that usually found in urban soils?

Dr. Prathima Nalam  35:45 
Yes, definitely. There are many inorganic compounds like arsenic, mercury, cobalt, they have come from different sources, different industrial sources, they all got accumulated in the soil. And they again, every of these heavy metals will have their own compounds because they don't stay as just metal ions by themselves. So they make these compounds. And the mechanisms will be more or less the same as we are studying for the lead so they could be easily extrapolated to the other heavy metals. And we believe that this tri mycelium would still have very high efficiency to remediate other heavy metals from the soil. What is more interesting is also that not just heavy metals, but mycelium is also very, can has a nature to absorb organic matter. And that's not the property of every filtrate that's there on the market. Usually, most of the filters that are there are polymeric synthetic materials. But Mycelium is in such a way that it can, its proteins are in such a way that it can absorb not only just heavy metals, but also organics and peat mosses are one of the more concerning issues currently that EPA is looking at. The mycelium is also a - it could be one of the membrane that can remove this. And that should be an interesting study to carry out.

Sarah Robinson  36:00
All right, great, thank you. We're gonna skip ahead a little bit and lean into the policy side a little bit, because we talked so much about all the great science that you're doing. So how does this translate into policy? How do you have to collaborate with government or other organizations in order to get your research heard and seen and for action to be taking? Dr. Paltseva, do you want to talk a little bit about this? Have you had success with this?

Dr. Anna Paltseva  37:43 
Well, I worked a little bit less with the policymakers than other researchers. And I think in this project, it was mostly others like Kasia and Olga and Prathima, who did a lot of work in the collaboration, like we're actually creating collaborations and work with the City of Buffalo. So I've kind of stayed away from it, because that kind of not exactly my area of expertise. But I definitely enjoy being on meetings where we have different organizations, not just the scientists, but you know, the city, the nonprofit organizations, and, you know, garden representatives, because you can actually learn what it takes to get your result to the policy and what they're looking for, what they're looking at when they evaluate science results. So it definitely benefits me as a researcher to see how it works. But I kind of was shielded from figuring out the logistics behind it by some senior colleagues.

Jeanette Koncikowski  38:47 
I think there's definitely been success, you know, Grassroots Gardens, before I was involved in it back in like 2012, 2013, were invited by the City of Buffalo to participate in the Green Code that was made and it's really one of the most successful green codes in the country. And the City of Buffalo does have a role in this grant as a key partner in it. And so they have been very supportive, and I think very interested in, you know, the potential for this technology and really at the forefront of wanting to figure out this, I mean, the industrial pollution in Buffalo in the legacy contamination has been an albatross around the neck of everyone that lives in the city, in the city government, it's, you know, would be millions and millions and millions of dollars to remediate every lot here. And so they have a vested interest both financially but I think ethically too, in determining, you know, what are better ways to do this. And again, I kept coming back to like, what was so exciting to me about this project was you're using a natural substance straight from Mother Earth to clean the damage that humans have done to the earth and so, you know, to kind of be able to come full circle like that and find the the answer right in nature is, you know, one way we might be able to better clean up the kind of mess that we've collectively made as humans to the land. So I do think they're listening. And I think there is great potential in this in terms of policy. And we have another partner on the grant, Dr. Emanuel Frimpong, and he is the evaluator on it. And he's looking at not just kind of the implications for policy in terms of the land contamination, but policy for, you know, how we support and educate and implement education in the community around soil safety.

Sarah Robinson  38:51
All right. And then I know you touched on this a little bit, Jeanette, but what can farmers do to, especially urban farmers, do to keep themselves safe, as this potential new program is being rolled out?

Jeanette Koncikowski  40:48
Yeah, so one of the things that we were really interested in and were able to get the funding from HUD on this grant to do was to revise a project we have called Safe Roots. And that is our public education campaign on soil safety. Way back in 2013-14, we had some funding to offer the creation of Safe Roots guidebooks, and Safe Roots workshops that worked primarily at that time in the new American communities. We were able to get the guide translated, and to provide our growers in urban areas, whether they're farmers or gardeners with information on how to keep yourself and your family safe while you're growing in a city. So the funding in this project is also supporting kind of our revision of that, because it's been 10 years almost. And it's time to, you know, update it all. And so we also have been working with our partners at the Western York Children's Environmental Health Center to update the guidebooks, they're going to be published in nine languages. You know, we have a burgeoning new American population in the city of Buffalo, which is why our census data has gone up for the first time in 40 or 50 years. And we have people that are interested, that have come from agricultural backgrounds, that want to be urban farmers here. And so, you know, through groups like the Greater Buffalo Urban Growers, connecting them, to coalition groups of farmers and growers that are well versed in, you know, how to grow safely in the city, I think, again, you know, just at a very individual level, it's about protecting equipment, it's about hand washing, and vegetable washing, and making sure that, you know, every step of the way from the first time you walk on the soil until you leave the soil and getting, you know, leaving your clothes out and getting them washed appropriately. And there's so many steps you can take, and we really try to lay out in the guidebook, what that looks like. So if you are, you know, visiting any of the urban farms in Buffalo, you'll often see that most of them, again, unless they have been well established and well composted, and well able to remediate the soil, are growing raised beds, they will bring in outside soil. And then they also, you know, we provide education on things like how to gather rain safely. People assume, you know, if I gather the rain, I can use it in my garden. Well, it depends on how you're collecting. And if it's coming off your asphalt shingled roof, it is not safe, because of the contamination from the shingles. And so, you know, we encourage rainwater harvesting, but not using it for food production and food watering. And so, you know, those are all things that have to be considered along the kind of growth cycle of the garden itself or the farm. And obviously, farming is at a larger level than we're doing at Grassroots Gardens. You know, we are kind of, we consider ourselves at a neighborhood scale, and not at an urban farm scale of growing. But a lot of the same principles apply for soil safety. And so those guide books should be being released before the spring, we are working with partners at International Institute right now, and wonderful a graphic designer, Rachel Bridges, who I'd like to give a shout out to, who's helped us really bring the look of the guidebooks into the 2020s. And so those will be going into final production in the next couple of weeks, and we'll be able to share them out for free with the public, hopefully by Spring 2023.

Sarah Robinson  44:08 
That's so exciting. And we'll definitely share the guidebook with the episode release so that more people are able to see it. That's so cool.

Leah Bargnesi  44:15 
Yeah, I was just gonna say that that's awesome.

Sarah Robinson  44:18 
And I would also pose this question to all of you. What is the single greatest thing and the most important thing that we can do to protect human health when it comes to urban agriculture and contamination?

Dr. Anna Paltseva  44:30 
I think what first comes to my mind is to spread more information and you're doing part of it, you know, through modern technologies and social media outlets. So thank you for you doing this podcast and spreading the word on science. And I think that's - just do more for public outreach and education and work with partners outside of academia, bringing science to people in their most digestible way and what Jeanette described is just perfect. That's what we need more of in every city.

Jeanette Koncikowski  45:00 
Yeah, I think I would just encourage people, you know, we've been talking about contamination and the fear around it right like, am I going to grow food and hurt my family? And there's research study after research study after study that shows the benefits of growing food at home far outweigh the risk of the contamination, you do need to be aware of it, you need to do things to minimize it. But in no way want anyone to leave here thinking like it's not safe to grow food in a city - it very much is. And we hope to be a resource, not just for community gardeners, we have a ton of resources on the grassrootsgardens.org website. And you can go there as a home gardener and learn a lot about how to grow your garden at home safely in the city. So really just want to encourage people to lean into gardening, see it as the gift that it is, and know that there are organizations like Grassroots that can support you whether you have a financial burden to getting safe materials for growing or whether you need that education. And even better, if you want to join community gardens so you don't have to grow alone, and you can get to meet your neighbors and come and enjoy the kind of garden party that we have. When we're growing together, it's a lot of fun. And, you know, the community of gardeners in Buffalo is just an amazing, fantastic resource too, so I would put a plug in to keep growing and don't let it stop you from from being able to grow.

Dr. Prathima Nalam  46:19 
So, I would just conclude by saying the soil, the current rate at which it is deteriorating. There is a literal unavailability of soil for growing food. We already have food scarcity, and 20 to 40 years from now, we will no longer have agricultural soil to meet like probably 9 billion, probably, of population to come soon. So urban gardening, it will be one of the key ways to go about it. And one thing that has also been the key factor of our project is public awareness, that this needs to be known that there are contaminants and the way they get contaminated and how can you remediate them is very, very critical. And also that all citizens need to start deciding or insisting on policymaking for these tools so that this gets included in our agendas at the highest level, to the most household level, so that we can act now, only if you can act now, then we probably we can the next 20-30 years are very, very critical for us to to bring back Mother Earth's soil to us back. So I feel that's that's the need of the hour, as important as climate change I might want to put it there.

Sarah Robinson  47:47 
And no better team to tackle it than you three, I would say. All right, is there anything else that you want to add or plug or shout out before we end?

Dr. Anna Paltseva  47:58 
If anyone wants to test soil, they can send it to Louisiana at Delta Urban Soils Lab, and we accept samples from all over the country.

Sarah Robinson  48:06
We really can't thank you enough for being here. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Outro  48:12
This has been another episode of Buffalo HealthCast. Thank you to our guests, Dr. Prathima Nalam, Dr. Anna Paltseva, and Jeanette Koncikowski. Omar Brown is our sound editor. And our theme music was written and recorded by Sungmin Shin of the UB Music Department. This episode was written and recorded by Sarah Robinson, Leah Bargnesi, and Sib Banuna for Dr. Kasia Kordas' Global Health class in Fall of 2022. I'm Sarah Robinson, your production assistant. Join us next time on Buffalo HealthCast to learn more about health equity in Buffalo, New York, the US, and around the globe.