Soil contamination question & printing presses

My wife and I are close to purchasing a house which has been used as a printing press co. for 100 years. We are concerned about potential soil contamination. Does anyone know what substances may have been dumped in the yard over the past century? Any info or guidance would be ap very much appreciated.

And yes, a ton (many tons, actually) of equipment still reside inside: C&P presses, Heidelberg windmills, Linotype machine, lead melting pot, binder, paper cutter, tons of type, furniture, etc. Think what would be in a family-owned, small early 20th century printing business and it’s here.

All will be sold in bulk at a huge discount to get it out of the house. Feel free to inquire about it. A specific post with pictures of each machine will be coming within the next month.


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Note: these are my personal recommendations based on growing up on a farm in nuclear research territory in south eastern Idaho. They may or may not apply to your situation. They also do not constitute legally binding advice. You should obtain that from the experts I am directing you to seek out below.

First thing to do is find a soil testing lab. If you live in farming country ask a farmer as they will know where the labs are. If you are not, call a local university or call the state department of agriculture and ask for the name of your extension agent who can direct you to one. Otherwise, yellow pages or google to identify one.

They will ask you to take soil samples around the property at various intervals. The driveway, near the entrance to the shop, around the building, etc… You will put the soil samples in containers (either they will supply you with a set of containers, or tell you what container to use so that you don’t contaminate the sample with the container…)

Number the samples, put pegs in the ground with the number on it that corresponds to the sample so that if they do find something that you know where it is concentrated.

Have the lab test for heavy metals: lead, antimony, tin, copper, manganese, and cobalt. Have them also test for petroleum distillates.

Lead, antimony, tin, copper, and potentially, but unlikely, zinc would be from the type metal and if they were using a linotype or doing remelting on site they may have dumped slag from the remelting process.

Manganese and or cobalt are present in oil based inks to speed drying time. If inks were spilled or dumped, or cans of dryer were spilled or dumped these will be present in the soil.

The good news is probably that if you do encounter any of this anywhere it will in all likelihood be highly localized. Since these items are generally not water soluble, they do not leach through soils. Be aware however, that cobalt occurs in most soils naturally as an element and is a naturally occurring byproduct of some power generation facilities burning coal and oil.

Don’t be particularly alarmed if you see any or all of these items show up in the soil tests. Petroleum residues may be a result of automotive repair rather than the dumping of press cleaning supplies. What you want the lab to report is whether there are unsafe levels of any of the items.

If they do find unsafe levels, you’ll know where the sample was and can take additional samples in a surrounding circle/grid to identify where exactly you need to clean up. Remediation can include removing the soil and/or covering (say pouring a concrete pad over the area to use as a parking area).

I would note that printers work around these items (ink, lead, solvents) for their entire lives with direct contact to the skin and live full lives and die of other causes. Printing byproducts will not be the same as radioactive fallout or nuclear waste. I would be much more concerned if I had purchased a former automotive garage that used a number of toxic solvents and paints, or HVAC shop that may have had asbestos still around. Even a farm probably presents a higher risk due to the dumping of herbicides and pesticides.

The other thing I would note is that it would not have been in the printer’s self interest to contaminate the area around the house because he lived there. Also, there have long been well understood disposal methods, avenues, and regulations, for these things, particularly for a commercial printer in a highly regulated state like Massachusetts.

Hope this helps,


Very good and complete information and advice Alan.

Alan’s advice is indeed good. I would also mention that although lead was used in the shop, it is unlikely ytou would find any contamination in nearby soil as the printers’ metal would have been conserved and reused, and any waste from remelting would have been salvaged and sold.

Most waste products would have been disposed of by standard garbage removal, although some cleaning solvents may have been dumped “out back” on occasion. As Alan mentioned, the owner would have been somewhat careful if this was a family home.

John Henry

I look forward to pictures and prices of type and the paper cutter!
Of course I do live in VT and pretty much everywhere is too far to ship from or pick up….
Still I look forward to pictures!

I’m also very interested in the type available. Any rough idea of how many faces are available? Are they still in the cases (I’m not sure how knowledgeable you are with printers’ terminology so just in case, these are the large, flat drawers with little divided boxes built into them made to hold type) and are the individual typefaces labelled? Thanks!