Foraging for wild foods is a way to be more connected with our beautiful planet and the source of our foods. It is probably fair to say that most foragers are health-conscious, organic-minded and somewhat “crunchy.” I definitely am. I buy organic whenever possible, stock our freezer with wild game or locally grown meat and I grow much of our own produce. I obsess over the quality of food I feed our family. I have always thought of foraging as a source of pure and healthy forest foods. Well, that might not always be the case.
Back in morel season, I absent-mindedly attempted to forage for food in a highly toxic poisoned landscape. I saw an environment that looked prime for fungus, so I went hunting without a care or concern about what contaminants might be hidden in the ground I was walking on. My only concern was possible dangers from being in a pretty rough neighborhood, but nothing that would keep me from finding delicious prizes. Even though I found no mushrooms, I was impressed by the lovely woodland walk I had in the middle of an industrial area. I thought there was potential for great foraging there. So, I went home and wrote a blog post about it.
This is a bit of my optimistic and naïve description…….
What I did find today was that Chief William C. “Billy” Hewitt Park in Tarrant City has one of the most beautiful short walking trails in the Birmingham area. The trail was littered with a bit of trash, but the surrounding woods were beautiful and filled with gorgeous wildflowers. The creek was up from last night’s rain, and the sound of the rushing water added to the beauty of my short walk. The field in the middle of the park was also incredibly lovely; and, if I were hungrier, I could have picked a dozen different edible plants from that field.
When I asked my better (and much smarter) half to read my newest blog post, he had to break it to me that my blog post wasn’t really the type of story to share on diggingfood.com, for 2 reasons. It sounded more like an urban hiking story than a food focused story (true, and I might sometimes stray into happy hiking blogging.). But more importantly, I should not be foraging or directing others to forage for food near a designated Superfund site. I was so focused on finding Morels, I didn’t even think about the nearby industrial pollution.
Superfund sites are areas that the EPA has declared contaminated by hazardous wastes. There are approximately 1000 Superfund sites across the U. S. designated in the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The industries that were the primary cause for these sites to be contaminated, were taxed heavily and the tax dollars poured into the “Superfund”. Of the original 1322 sites, only 375 locations have been entirely cleaned up. Over the last 38 years, the management of the Superfund has been a bipartisan failure. The original taxes imposed on the companies that caused the pollution expired back in the 90s. Now the American tax payer is footing the bill, with much of the taxes being wasted on litigation. There is no telling how long some of these sites will remain hazardous to human health.
Some of the most toxic areas in the country are not in obvious locations. You will not see a giant sign with a skull and crossbones labeling the plots of land in your area that are contaminated. But, you can check the EPA’s Superfund map.
Somewhere under the thick blanket of those toxic markers is my sweet home Alabama and the 35th Ave Superfund site. The rushing water that had sounded so pretty on my walk was the Five Mile Creek, one of the sources of downstream pollution at this nearby contaminated site. Toxic sludge from industrial sites flowed down the creek into this neighborhood for decades every time it flooded. The banks where I had been foraging were undoubtedly poisoned by the same industrial waste. All I saw was a pretty creek lined with hardwoods and privet, the perfect environment for Morels. I never considered the soil and grounds could be toxic.
The 35th Ave Superfund site is home to at least 3 different highly dangerous contaminants, definitely not ingredients I want in our dinner.
“Soil that was removed was laden with contaminants including arsenic, lead, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzo(a)pyrene. All are strongly linked to human health problems, and benzo(a)pyrene is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.” Al.com
Let this be a warning to all of us. Foragers, especially mushroom hunters, should know the history of the land on which they are foraging and be aware of any potential pollutants in the area. Because, some species of mushrooms are proven to concentrate lead, arsenic and other heavy metals. I have not found any research on the concentration of heavy metals in Morels specifically. But, there are reports that many species of Cantharellus (chanterelles) concentrate high levels of lead. There are several varieties of Chantys growing all over Alabama. They are far different than the elusive Morels in that they are plentiful. We don’t just eat them seasonally, we pick pounds of them every year and stock our freezer. Some years we are lucky to have enough to can Chanterelle stock (my favorite). If we were harvesting them from toxic soil, we could suffer from serious health problems as a result of eating them. Now that I have learned of the potential lead concentration in Chanterelles, I will be far more cautious about the locations from which I choose to harvest.
To learn more about heavy metal concentrations in Fungus here is an interesting piece of research from The Finnish Enviroment Institute on Cadnium, Lead, Arsenic and Nickle in Wild Edible Mushrooms. They concluded that some very delicious sub species of mushrooms were able to concentrate heavy metals to the point that consumption of them should be avoided. And this was from “pristine” forests.
The dozen different edible greens that I saw on my foraging walk could have also been incredibly toxic. One of the pollutants that rushes with the flood waters of Five Mile Creek is benzo(a)pyrene a persistent organic pollutant(POP). It is an organic pollutant that doesn’t evaporate or dissipate. It can be passed through the food chain. The edible greens I was thinking of harvesting are regularly watered with benzolpyrene creek water.
Small vegetative plants are also proven to have high concentrations of toxins when grown in contaminated soils. Research has been done on Arsenic and Lead Uptake by Vegetable Crops Grown on Historically Contaminated Orchard Soils. The results of the research shows that small leafy vegetables have far higher concentrations of lead and arsenic compared to the fruits of larger crops. So, while it might be safe to eat an apple grown on contaminated soil, toxins can concentrate in a bunch of Kale grown aside that apple tree. Dead nettle, wild garlic, and chickweed harvested next to a poisoned creek are also vegetative growth that should not be consumed.
I have always been very cautious about proper identification of my foraged mushrooms and edible greens. Like most experienced foragers, I know to avoid “dangerous look-a-likes” when I am out hunting. I had never thought about concentrated heavy metals that could cause my properly identified foraged foods to be toxic as well. In the future, I will be far more cautious about picking from any new foraging spots.
This is the closing thought from my original intended blog post………..
I have never considered Tarrant to be a community where anyone could find beautiful nature. Today, I was pleasantly surprised. If you are ever passing through the area, take a few minutes out of your day to stroll through this small park. If you end up picking baskets full of morels, please let me know. There are plenty of them there. . .at least in my imagination.
I’m so glad I did not end up finding “baskets full of morels” growing on those poisoned creek banks. I will never again stop to forage for food in Tarrant City, AL or anywhere else near a Superfund site. But, I will probably walk the trail I wrote about again. Since learning of the poisoned history of Five Mile Creek, I am even more impressed by the resilient beauty of the place. In the middle of an industrial waste land, nature is still thriving. The heavy metals that flow in that creek aren’t slowing down the wildflowers and majestic oak trees. The woods there are lovely and still a nice place to take a stroll.