Toxic Soil Busters: Who You Gonna Call?


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.

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