Dangerous elements like lead are present in concentrated levels in graveyard soils around UK churches. It presents potentially major problem for surrounding communities and potential redevelopment of sites like this.
Scientists used portable X-ray fluorescence techniques to analyse soil in two U.K. churchyards. The sites chosen featured known graves dating back to the 16th century. These sites have been probably used for burials for more than 1,000 years.
Scientists took soil samples and analysed them to determine what elements were present, finding elevated levels of heavy metals like iron, lead, manganese, chromium, copper, zinc and calcium in the soil. It is most likely due to the decomposition and also breakdown of items and substances which had been buried with the deceased.
This has implications for how the sites are managed currently as well as for neighboring communities. As concentrations of some metal elements were so high that they would be classed as waste by environmental regulation standards.
The findings are also important for any future redevelopment plans for the site. As it is not uncommon for churchyards to be deconsecrated and redeveloped in the future. The timing of schemes like this varies by country as there are different laws in place for how long grave sites must be left before they can be legally moved.
The concentration of things like lead which would be left behind in the soil could cause potential problems for redevelopment of the site. Any plants, fruit and vegetables grown in a potential garden on the site would likely have high concentrations of lead and other heavy metals within them.
This paper provides evidence that soils in many long-lived burial sites will be contaminated. Both in soils on the surface and deeper into the ground, although there are many site-specific factors that affect whether elements are long-lasting or not.