Plants are incredible! Sunflowers are not only beautiful but they can remove lead from soils contaminated by lead paint on old houses, a process called phytoremediation.
We partnered with the local government office Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) and their Lead Program in Burlington, VT. We focused on the Old North End (ONE) neighborhood because many property lots have soils that are heavily contaminated with lead from lead paint on building exteriors. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978, yet many houses in ONE were built prior to 1939 and are therefore likely to contain some lead-based paint. The ONE is also the most socioeconomically diverse neighborhood in the state, so we thought its residents would benefit most from planting sunflowers as a low-cost, effective, lead remediation technology.
We spread the word about sunflowers on social media, distributed brochures throughout the community, and hosted a planting party in collaboration with the Unitarian Universalist church at the north-end of Church St. Volunteers helped create a new garden bed, and we used sunflowers to clean the soil before planting an edible garden. CEDO provided packets of sunflower seeds with information about the benefits of cleaning up lead-contaminated soils for the church project. We hope many households and commercial properties adopt this beautiful, sustainable, and low-cost technology to remove toxic heavy metals, which negatively affect our health and the natural world, from of our built environments.