Soil contamination or soil pollution is caused by the presence of human-made solid or liquid chemicals or other alteration in the natural soil environment. It is typically caused by industrial activity, agricultural chemicals, or improper disposal of waste. The most common chemicals involved are petroleum hydrocarbons, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (such as naphthalene and benzo(a)pyrene), solvents, pesticides, lead, and other heavy metals.
How did it get there?
Soil contamination results when hazardous substances are either spilled or buried directly in the soil or migrate to the soil from a spill that has occurred elsewhere. For example, soil can become contaminated when small particles containing hazardous substances are released from a smokestack and are deposited on the surrounding soil as they fall out of the air. Another source of soil contamination could be water that washes contamination from an area containing hazardous substances and deposits the contamination in the soil as it flows over or through it.
Land pollution can be caused by:
Genetically modified plants
Landfill and illegal dumping
Agricultural practices, such as application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
Mining & other industries
Oil and fuel dumping
Disposal of coal ash
Drainage of contaminated surface water into the soil
How does it hurt animals, plants and humans
The concern over soil contamination stems primarily from health risks, from direct contact with the contaminated soil, vapors from the contaminants, and from secondary contamination of water supplies within and underlying the soil. Contaminants in the soil can hurt plants when they attempt to grow in contaminated soil, and take up the contamination through their roots. Contaminants in the soil can adversely impact the health of animals and humans when they ingest, inhale, or touch contaminated soil, or when they eat plants or animals that have themselves been affected by soil contamination. Animals ingest and come into contact with contaminants when they burrow in contaminated soil. Humans ingest and come into contact with contaminants when they play in contaminated soil or dig in the soil as part of their work. Certain contaminants, when they contact our skin, are absorbed into our bodies. When contaminants are attached to small surface soil particles they can become airborne as dust and can be inhaled.
Contaminated or polluted soil directly affects human health through direct contact with soil or via inhalation of soil contaminants which have vaporized; potentially greater threats are posed by the infiltration of soil contamination into groundwater aquifiers used for human consumption, sometimes in areas apparently far removed from any apparent source of above ground contamination.
Health consequences from exposure to soil contamination vary greatly depending on pollutant type, pathway of attack and vulnerability of the exposed population. Chronic exposure to chromium, lead and other metals, petroleum, solvents, and many pesticide and herbicide formulations can be carcinogenic, can cause congenital disorders, or can cause other chronic health conditions. Industrial or man-made concentrations of naturally occurring substances, such as nitrate and ammonia associated with livestock manure from agricultural operations, have also been identified as health hazards in soil and groundwater.
Chronic exposure to benzene at sufficient concentrations is known to be associated with higher incidence of leukemia. Mercury and cyclodienes are known to induce higher incidences of kidney damage, some irreversible. PCBs and cyclodienes are linked to liver toxicity. Organophosphates and carbomates can induce a chain of responses leading to neuromuscular blockage. Many chlorinated solvents induce liver changes, kidney changes and depression of the central nervous system. There is an entire spectrum of further health effects such as headache, nausea, fatigue, eye irritation and skin rash for the above cited and other chemicals. At sufficient dosages a large number of soil contaminants can cause death by Ecosystem.
Not unexpectedly, soil contaminants can have significant deleterious consequences for ecosystems. There are radical soil chemistry changes which can arise from the presence of many hazardous chemicals even at low concentration of the contaminant species. These changes can manifest in the alteration of metabolism of endemic microorganisms and arthropods resident in a given soil environment. The result can be virtual eradication of some of the primary food chain, which in turn could have major consequences for predator or consumer species. Even if the chemical effect on lower life forms is small, the lower pyramid levels of the food chain may ingest alien chemicals, which normally become more concentrated for each consuming rung of the food chain. Many of these effects are now well known, such as the concentration of persistent DDT materials for avian consumers, leading to weakening of egg shells, increased chick mortality and potential extinction of species.
Effects occur to agricultural lands which have certain types of soil contamination. Contaminants typically alter plant metabolism, often causing a reduction in crop yields. This has a secondary effect upon soil conservation, since the languishing crops cannot shield the Earth’s soil from erosion Some of these chemical contaminants have long half-lives and in other cases derivative chemicals are formed from decay of primary soil contaminants.