What Is Soil Pollution?


Soil pollution is defined as the presence of toxic chemicals (pollutants or contaminants) in soil, in high enough concentrations to pose a risk to human health and/or the ecosystem. In the case of contaminants which occur naturally in soil, even when their levels are not high enough to pose a risk, soil pollution is still said to occur if the levels of the contaminants in soil exceed the levels that should naturally be present.

Soil Pollution Causes

All soils, whether polluted or unpolluted, contain a variety of compounds (contaminants) which are naturally present. Such contaminants include metals, inorganic ions and salts (e.g. phosphates, carbonates, sulfates, nitrates), and many organic compounds (such as lipids, proteins, DNA, fatty acids, hydrocarbons, PAHs, alcohols, etc.). These compounds are mainly formed through soil microbial activity and decomposition of organisms (e.g., plants and animals). Additionally, various compounds get into the soil from the atmosphere, for instance with precipitation water, as well as by wind activity or other types of soil disturbances, and from surface water bodies and shallow groundwater flowing through the soil. When the amounts of soil contaminants exceed natural levels (what is naturally present in various soils), pollution is generated. There are two main causes through which soil pollution is generated: anthropogenic (man-made) causes and natural causes.

Natural Pollutants

Natural processes can lead to an accumulation of toxic chemicals in the soil. This type of contamination has only been recorded in a few cases, such as the accumulation of higher levels of perchlorate in soil from the Atacama Desert in Chile, a type of accumulation which is purely due to natural processes in arid environments.

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Man-Made Pollutants

Man-made contaminants are the main causes of soil pollution and consist of a large variety of contaminants or chemicals, both organic and inorganic. They can pollute the soil either alone or combined with several natural soil contaminants. Man-made soil pollution is usually caused by the improper disposal of waste coming from industrial or urban sources, industrial activities, and agricultural pesticides. 

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Types of Soil Pollutants

Soil pollution consists of pollutants and contaminants. The main pollutants of the soil are the biological agents and some of the human activities. Soil contaminants are all products of soil pollutants that contaminate the soil. Human activities that pollute the soil range from agricultural practices that infest the crops with pesticide chemicals to urban or industrial wastes or radioactive emissions that contaminate the soil with various toxic substances.

Biological Agents

Biological agents work inside the soil to introduce manures and digested sludge (coming from the human, bird and animal excreta) into the soil.

Agricultural Practices

The soil of the crops is polluted to a large extent with pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, slurry, debris, and manure.

Radioactive Pollutants

Radioactive substances such as Radium, Thorium, Uranium, Nitrogen, etc. can infiltrate the soil and create toxic effects.

Urban Waste

Urban waste consists of garbage and rubbish materials, dried sludge and sewage from domestic and commercial waste.

Industrial Waste

Steel, pesticides, textiles, drugs, glass, cement, petroleum, etc. are produced by paper mills, oil refineries, sugar factories, petroleum industries and others as such.

Examples of Soil Contaminants

There is a large variety of pollutants that could poison the soil. Examples of the most common and problematic soil pollutants can be found in the chart below.

Soil pollutantPotential Sources Poisoning Symptoms/Effects
Lead (Pb)
  • Lead paint
  • Mining
  • Foundry activities
  • Vehicle exhaust
  • Construction activities
  • Agriculture activities (pesticide with lead such as lead arsenate that was banned)
  • Affects the nervous system and memory, growth and development, as well as cognitive development (lower IQs)
  • Learning difficulties
  • Autism in genetically predisposed people
  • Growth reduction and weight loss
  • Impairs the pituitary-thyroid endocrine system
  • Favors osteoporosis
Mercury (Hg)
  • Mining
  • Incineration of coal
  • Alkali and metal processing
  • Medical waste
  • Volcanoes and geologic deposits (natural sources)
  • Accumulation in plants and vegetables grown on polluted soils
  • Itching, burning, pain
  • Damage to brain, kidneys, and lungs
  • Pink disease (acrodynia) – skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips, toes), while red cheeks and nose in affected children
  • Desquamation (peeling off in layers of dead skin)
  • High blood pressure and hypersalivation
  • Tachycardia
  • Loss of hair, teeth, nails, photophobia, kidney dysfunction, memory impairment, insomnia in children
Arsenic (As)
  • Mining 
  • Coal-fired power plants
  • Lumber facilities (used as CCA – chromate copper arsenate – in pressure treated wood)
  • Electronics industry 
  • Foundry activities
  • Agriculture (Pesticides) 
  • Natural accumulation 
  • If ingested – the most specific effects relates to skin pattern changes and cancer (including liver, kidney, bladder, prostate and lung cancer); also at lower doses, the digestive system may be affected with symptoms such as nausea vomiting, stomach irritation, diarrhea, damage to blood vessels
  • If inhaled – skin changes; irritation of throat and lungs, circulatory problems, nervous system disorders
Other metals (Cu, Zn, Ni, etc.)
  • Mining
  • Foundry activities
  • Construction activities
  • Depending on the metals, symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, pain, hematemesis (vomiting of blood), hypotension, cramps, diarrhea etc.
PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons)
  • Coal burning
  • Vehicle emissions
  • Accumulation in plants and vegetables grown on polluted soils
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Wildfires
  • Agricultural burning
  • Wood burning
  • Constructions
  • Industrial plants 
  • Accumulation in plants and vegetables grown on polluted soils
  • Harm to skin, body fluids, and the autoimmune system
  • Eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Cataracts
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Cancer (skin, lung, bladder, gastrointestinal)
  • Difficulty in reproduction in animals (not yet confirmed in humans)
  • Agricultural activities
  • Gardening
  • Large range of effects, from skin rashes to death

The Effects of Soil Pollution

Soil pollution affects plants, animals and humans alike. While anyone is susceptible to soil pollution, soil pollution effects may vary based on age, general health status and other factors, such as the type of pollutant or contaminant inhaled or ingested. However, children are usually more susceptible to exposure to contaminants, because they come in close contact with the soil by playing in the ground; combined with lower thresholds for disease, this triggers higher risks than for adults. Therefore, it is always important to test the soil before allowing your kids to play there, especially if you live in a highly industrialized area.

Diseases Caused by Soil Pollution

Humans can be affected by soil pollution through the inhalation of gases emitted from soils moving upward, or through the inhalation of matter that is disturbed and transported by the wind because of the various human activities on the ground. Soil pollution may cause a variety of health problems, starting with headaches, nausea, fatigue, skin rash, eye irritation and potentially resulting in more serious conditions like neuromuscular blockage, kidney and liver damage and various forms of cancer.

Soil Pollution Facts

Soil acts as a natural sink for contaminants, by accumulating and sometimes concentrating contaminants which end up in soil from various sources. Tiny amounts of contaminants accumulate in the soil and - depending on the environmental conditions (including soil types) and the degradability of the released contaminant - can reach high levels and pollute the soil. If the soil is contaminated, home-grown vegetables and fruits may become polluted too. This happens because most of the soil pollutants present in the soil are extracted by the plants along with water every time they feed. Thus, it is always prudent to test the soil before starting to grow anything edible. This is especially important if your garden is located near an industrial or mining area, or within 1 mile of a main airport, harbor, landfill, or foundry.

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