Field Snapshot: Keeping Preschool Gardens, Playgrounds Safe for Children

Nov. 19, 2019

Digging in the dirt and romping on playgrounds should be a part of anyone’s childhood. But for children who grow up near old mines, those everyday occurrences are risky due to potential exposure to contaminants, like arsenic, cadmium and lead.

Playgrounds and preschool gardens, specifically, can expose children to contaminants not only through the soil, but also through the vegetables that are produced. The extent of that exposure and risk was the subject of Iliana Manjón’s research for her master’s degree in environmental science at the University of Arizona.
Manjón’s project, which expanded on work by the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and Sierra Streams Institute, focused on communities in Nevada County, California, that are impacted by legacy gold mining. When compared to the rest of the state, this county has one of the highest rates of breast cancer. Describing her research project as nontraditional, Manjón dug deep into environmental analysis, community engagement and human health. “Not only did I work in the lab to analyze for contaminants in water, soil and plants, but I also worked alongside the community throughout the process to best address their concerns about environmental quality in their area,” Manjón said. 
Manjón worked with assistant professor Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta in the Department of Environmental Science as part of the citizen science project, Gardenroots, which  focuses on engaging community members, especially those in underserved populations, about the health of their soil, water and plants. 


Exposure assessment to looking at preschool garden contaminants
Iliana Manjón’s research looked at the future exposure and risk of contaminants, like arsenic, cadmium and lead in preschool playgrounds and gardens near legacy mining sites.
“We found elevated levels of lead in a couple of gardens and playgrounds and are working with the county to remediate the soil,” Manjón said. “We also determined that preschool garden-grown vegetables were major contributors to the children’s overall arsenic and cadmium exposures.” Manjón, who has a bachelor’s in physiology from the University of Arizona, integrated environmental monitoring of the gardens with a novel dietary assessment specific to the community.
She also conducted training on the proper collection of water, vegetables, soil and dust from the gardens. Simultaneously, Manjón engaged with the people impacted, collaborating with a local community organization and Community Advisory Board consisting of breast cancer survivors and community advocates.
“My work provided the necessary framework to improve future exposure and risk assessments.” said Manjón. “This kind of research is essential to protect vulnerable populations living near active and legacy mining sites.” Now, the schools have the information they need to help the parents and teachers make informed decisions about reducing the children’s exposure to contaminants. And Manjón, a medical student at the College of Medicine – Tucson, is determined to use her knowledge of environmental health in her future work as physician.
This story was part of the 2019 WildCat Country insert of the Arizona Republic.