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Is There Lead in Your Pastures?
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Is There Lead in Your Pastures?

What can stay hidden on your property forever and never break down? Lead is an element that won't disintegrate into harmless substances. It does not decompose like iron into rust, it simply gets eroded down to particles and dust. The toxic properties of heavy metals, even these particles, persist forever in the soil and ground water.

Once an ingredient in paints and pesticides, lead can also appear from a natural environmental source. You may never have used any lead products but it may still be present on your property in the soil, in old barn paint and in paint chips. Even if you have removed all of the lead paint from structures, lead has already entered your soil. New buildings, or those built after the 1980's, do not necessarily mean you won't have lead or other heavy metals, that have dropped or leached into the soil from long gone junkyards where old machinery and leaded gas may have been stored, pressure treated lumber or railroad ties, or from paints that have flaked free from old barns of the past.

Lead, like other environmental toxins, is then taken up by the roots of plants, including the pasture grasses, clovers and dandelions. The horses can also ingest the lead directly through licking or chewing on tainted wood or lead painted objects. Horses can also ingest the lead in the soil itself as the dirt clings to plant roots or if you feed hay on the ground. The plants in the pasture take up the lead through their systems and the horses begin to acquire the heavy metal as they eat the grasses.

Lead Levels (parts per million)

Safe/natural levels: 100 ppm and under

Increased levels: over 100 to 300ppm

Toxic levels: over 300 ppm

What You Can Do

1.  Your local agricultural university, extension office or environmental conservation service will do soil testing. It's fast and easy!

2.  Do not allow horses access to old paint that may be on iron gates, wooden fences or buildings. They may lick or chew these objects and ingest the lead. However, contaminated pastures are the main source of accumulated lead and heavy metal toxicity.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning in Horses

Low levels of lead toxicity usually have no signs.  Serious lead poisoning in horses produces neurological symptoms including:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • lethargy and weakness
  • incoordination
  • anemia
  • unusual manure consistency or diarrhea
  • respiratory distress or blindness

Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your horse has ingested lead or is beginning to show symptoms of lead poisoning. The best way to ensure that pastures are safe is to get your soil sample tested. It's easy, cheap and an important step towards to safe garden and pasture management.


Photo Courtesy: Flickr

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