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Toxic Soil Busters: Who You Gonna Call?

2013 September 4


By Asa Needle

When I first joined Toxic Soil Busters I cared about environmental issues, but I saw them as enormous and complex problems that were too big for me to tackle. My perspective quickly changed when I learned about Worcester RootsToxic Soil Busters program, a youth-run cooperative that does remediation of soil contaminated with lead, sustainable urban landscaping, and environmental justice outreach. Before I started with the Toxic Soil Busters I considered environmental burdens, disparate health impacts, and a lack of opportunities for young people in our communities as separate issues. My experience in Toxic Soil Busters helped me understand how these problems are connected, and that any meaningful solution to these issues needs to address them holistically.

Perhaps the best way that I internalized these lessons was through our outreach to communities affected by lead paint. Before it was outlawed in 1978, cheaper lead paint was used in households and apartments. Even though most of this toxic paint has been painted over, the toxic metal still can find its way into the soil and remain there for hundreds of years. Young children playing in the mud of their backyards are especially vulnerable as their bodies are still growing. Lead can affect the heart, bones, intestines, and kidneys, as well as the brain, where it can manifest as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.

TSBsummer2011-300x223Rather than just try to clean up this dirty soil, Toxic Soil Busters takes a different approach. We empower youth by giving them the skills to combat lead in their own communities. For example, we are currently researching new ways to remediate lead-filled yards. Phytoremediation uses perennial plants such as geraniums, which soak up the lead and are then safely disposed. Other solutions include dilution through extensive composting, or reducing bioavailibility by using elements like phosphate. Young residents are at the forefront of our work in each case where we are working in neighborhoods to contain or remediate toxic lead soil.

Inner-city kids – particular in the Worcester neighborhoods of Main South and Piedmont – often don’t have access to many opportunities, and are on the front lines of environmental threats. We build those opportunities, where they can learn job skills as they confront social justice issues. Additionally, as part of a movement of co-operatives, we support a local economy that can provide green, sustainable jobs to youth.

Since Toxic Soil Busters started in 2006, we have remediated the yards of over forty homes, preventing future lead exposure and helping families sleep easy. We have seen far greater awareness of healthy homes issues in Worcester through our outreach, leading to more funding going towards these initiatives. Through our outreach, we have talked to hundreds of people, and thousands have heard our message. Some thirty youth have passed through Toxic Soil Busters, many going on to college and careers they didn’t even dream of when they first joined.

There are many problems that are keeping opportunities out of reach for the youth in our communities. Worcester Roots has taught me how to aggressively approach these problems, and design holistic solutions to address them. I learned how to think like an entrepreneur and an activist, and the work I do for the rest of my life will be defined by my experience here.

About the author: Asa Needle is Coordinator of Outreach and Education of the Worcester Roots Project, a non-profit dedicated to co-operative development, youth empowerment, and making neighborhoods safer for living, working, and playing. Worcester Roots Project runs cooperative-style social entrepreneurship youth programs with an environmental justice focus, including the Toxic Soil Busters. He furthers their mission of a just and sustainable world through collaborations with the Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance, Co-op Power, and Stone Soup Community Center.

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(Winning video submitted by Toxic Soil busters for EPA’s Faces of the Grassroots Video Contest for Student Informational Video)


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    September 4, 2013

    Now that is what I am talking about, Youth seeing a problem in their community and creating a business to solve the problem!!! I love the video and the blog.


  2. Cesar permalink
    September 4, 2013

    Toxic Soil Busters what a fantastic idea. I love that they are able to empower youth, create a economic vehicle to hire local residents and clean up the environment all at the same time. I guess that weakens the idea that you have to choose between jobs and the environment.

  3. Kim permalink
    September 6, 2013

    This is an amazing story. I will definitely share it with others. Who You Gonna Call – Toxic Soil Busters!!!!

    Kim T.

  4. Leslie Fields permalink
    September 6, 2013

    Congratulations to the Worcester Roots Project and Toxic Soil Busters for all their great work and accomplishments. Thanks to EPA OEJ for this great blog series! It’s informative, inspiring and very interesting!

  5. John Deckert permalink
    September 6, 2013

    Hate to burst your bubble, but phytoremediation doesn’t really work. Raised beds are great, but covering the contaminated areas with clean soil and sod or paving over them would be more effective for the rest of the yard than phytoremediation

  6. Robert permalink
    September 6, 2013

    I really like this story and video. I would love to share it with some of the youth organizations that I am affiliated with and some local officials. Do you have any type of training guide on how you got started and the techniques you use for the lead remediation? Thanks again for sharing your story.

  7. Maggie permalink
    September 7, 2013

    Wonderful to see young people being innovative and helping to create strong neighborhoods.

    Maggie Cleason

  8. Jane permalink
    September 11, 2013

    And why don’t we see these positive stories about youth on CNN, FOX or MSNBC???? Keep up the great work Toxic Soil Busters, We are proud of you…..

  9. Liam permalink
    September 14, 2013

    I loved the end of the video when she said, “Youth Can Do Anything” what a needed and true statement. It was a real pleasure to read this story and watch the video.


  10. Rhonda permalink
    January 11, 2014

    Uber Good Video,,,,The Kids Rock!

  11. Liam permalink
    August 17, 2014

    I had to come back to this story because it is one of my all time favorites. I hope you will continue to focus on the great work that youth are doing around the country.

  12. Ejo Gortner permalink
    August 19, 2014

    This is a fantastic story and know that our youth is taking action against criminal polluters. Now we need to focus on the impact Geo-Engineering is having on our world, planet and our children’s future. Please pay attention to this. It is so so important.

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