Lead in Garden Products & Loosestrife Beetles

  • A warning label on the packaging of a garden hose. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor tested 179 kinds of garden products, including garden hoses, tools, gloves and kneeling pads.  They found 70% of the products contained levels of "high concern" of one or more toxic substances… including lead, cadmium and mercury.

From the report:

  • 30% of all products contained over 100 ppm lead in one or more component. 100 ppm is the Consumer Product Safety Commission Standard (CPSC) for lead in children’ products.
  • 100% of the garden hoses sampled for phthalates contained four phthalate plasticizers which are currently banned in children’s products.
  • Two water hoses contained the flame retardant 2,3,4,5-tetrabromo-bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (TBPH).

Jeff Gearhart is the Ecology Center’s research director.  He says the biggest concern is garden hoses – because a lot of people like to drink out of them on a hot day.

"We found that one-third of them contained lead in excess of the U.S. drinking water standards that apply to products like water faucets."

He says the problem is – garden hoses are not regulated.  Some hoses have warning labels telling you not to drink from them.

But Gearhart says they tested some polyurethane and natural rubber hoses and found they were lead-free.

"There’s a variety of polyurethane-based hoses that are made out of food-grade polyurethane and have lead-free fittings that are on the market. And there’s also natural rubber hoses we tested that don’t have the types of contaminants that are typical of the vinyl hoses."

He says they also did an experiment to see what kinds of chemicals might leach into water that's sitting in a hose, and left out in the sun.  Water sampled from one hose contained 0.280 mg/l (ppm) lead. This is 18 times higher than the federal drinking water standard.

The authors of the report have these recommendations:

  • Read the labels: Avoid hoses with a California Prop 65 warning that says “this product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects and other reproductive harm.” Buy hoses that are “drinking water safe” and “lead-free.”
  • Let it run: Always let your hose run for a few seconds before using, since the water that’s been sitting in the hose will have the highest levels of chemicals.
  • Avoid the sun: Store your hose in the shade. The heat from the sun can increase the leaching of chemicals from the PVC into the water.
  • Don't drink water from a hose: Unless you know for sure that your hose is drinking water safe, don’t drink from it. Even if it is labeled safe for drinking, flush it out first before sipping. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after handling a hose since lead can transfer to your hands and then from your hands to your mouth when eating. Even low levels of lead may cause health problems.
  • Buy a Lead-free hose: One easy way to cut down on the amount of lead in your immediate environment is to get a lead-free garden hose. Not only will it drastically reduce the amount of lead being deposited in your yard, it will also virtually eliminate direct exposure when watering by hand or tending to the garden. A lead-free garden hose is also safe for children to get a much-needed drink or play in the sprinklers, and pets will also be spared of potential lead poisoning from water bowls filled from the hose. The hoses are often white with a thin blue stripe, and are commonly sold in marine and recreational vehicle (RV) stores. An RV lead-free garden hose can also come in a beige color with blue stripe, to match the beige paint of many RVs. Although sold for RV and marine use, these hoses serve as great lead-free garden hoses.
  • Test your soil: It's  a great idea to check the nutrient levels, but you can also check the levels of metals like lead. Another important source of lead includes lead paint.
  • It’s not just lead: Our test also detected phthalate plasticizers in both the PVC hose materials and in the water left standing in a PVC hose. Some of these phthalates are the same phthalates which have been banned in children’s products. We also detected bisphenol A (BPA) in water left standing in a PVC hose. BPA is used as an antioxidant in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and as an inhibitor of end polymerization in PVC.
  • Avoid PVC: PVC needs potentially hazardous additives and stabilizers to make it “rubbery.” Instead, try a top-quality, food grade polyurethane hose that meets Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards or an old fashion natural rubber hose. Search on-line “polyurethane garden hose” or “rubber garden hose” for options.
  • Watch the brass: The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) limits lead in brass in residential water fixtures to no more than 2,500 ppm. Garden hoses ARE NOT regulated by the SDWA, and our tests show 29% of brass connectors contained greater than 2,500 ppm lead. Opt for a hose that is drinking water safe and lead free. Non-brass fittings (nickel, aluminum or stainless) are more likely to be lead-free.


This is the Environment Report.

Purple loosestrife is a widespread invasive plant. It’s taken over wetlands in every state in the U.S. except Florida. But now, Lindsey Smith reports scientists consider purple loosestrife an invasive species success story:

Purple loosestrife are those tall bright purple flowering plants you see mixed in with cattails lining the edge of many lakes and wetlands. It was first recorded in Michigan more than 160 years ago near Muskegon.

Doug Landis is a scientist at Michigan State University.

“But like many invasive plants, once they get a foothold they become much more aggressive invaders.”

Purple loosestrife can grow up to ten feet tall. And with each plant producing 2.5 million seeds a year, it quickly crowded out other native plants. People began to notice in the 1950’s that ducks, geese, and other waterfowl hate nesting in ponds overrun by loosestrife. And other native species have a hard time finding food.

“Basically every method to control purple loosestrife was tried and ultimately they decided that all the conventionally means were failing and they really needed to look at biological control.”

That means they had to find something to eat it.

(birds singing)

It’s mid-morning at Huff Park in Grand Rapids. Sunny, maybe 50 degrees, just warm enough for volunteers to begin spotting their targets moving around in the park’s wetlands.

“You have to kind of pick a spot, kind of watch it a little bit.”

That’s Jacqueline Bilello… she’s the stewardship coordinator at the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

She crouches down in front of a newly budding purple loosestrife plant. She points out the tell-tale signs she’s looking for… little holes in the leaves.
“Got our first beetle.” (laughs)

Bilello carefully gathers the tiny black and red loosestrife beetle in a homemade bug trap. It’s passed around so the rest of the volunteers can see what they’re hunting for.

In a couple of hours the group has captured about 80 beetles… plenty to establish a new population at a nature preserve about ten miles away.

Entomologist Doug Landis says this beetle loves eating purple loosestrife. That’s all it eats in its native home in Europe. The beetle was first introduced in Michigan in 1994.

“The beetles become very abundant. They knock down the population of loosestrife but in doing so they’ve kind of eaten themselves out of house and home.”

So the beetles travel to find more purple loosestrife. Or, if they’re lucky, some people help them out. Landis says groups like this one in Grand Rapids regularly capture and release beetles to target specific areas.

So far, the beetle hasn’t adapted to eat any other plants. And Landis says it hasn’t caused any known secondary problems.

“15 years ago purple loosestrife was pretty much unchecked in southern Michigan. And now where I find purple loosestrife I almost always find the beetles.”

Landis says we can never get rid of purple loosestrife. But the beetles are keeping the plant under control most of the state.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.