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Soil contamination

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Soil contamination is the presence of man-made chemicals or other alteration in the natural soil environment. This type of contamination typically arises from the rupture of underground storage tanks, application of pesticides, percolation of contaminated surface water to subsurface strata, leaching of wastes from landfills or direct discharge of industrial wastes to the soil. The most common chemicals involved are petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, lead and other heavy metals. This occurrence of this phenomenon is correlated with the degree of industrialization and intensity of chemical usage.

The concern over soil contamination stems primarily from health risks, both of direct contact and from secondary contamination of water supplies[1]. Mapping of contaminated soil sites and the resulting cleanup are time consuming and expensive tasks, requiring extensive amounts of geology, hydrology, chemistry and computer modeling skills.

It is in North America and Western Europe that the extent of contaminated land is most well known, with many of countries in these areas having a legal framework to identify and deal with this environmental problem; this however may well be just the tip of the iceberg with developing countries very likely to be the next generation of new soil contamination cases.

The immense and sustained growth of the People's Republic of China since the 1970s has exacted a price from the land in increased soil pollution. The State Environmental Protection Administration believes it to be a threat to the environment, to food safety and to sustainable agriculture. According to a scientific sampling, 150 million mi (100,000 square kilometres) of China’s cultivated land have been polluted, with contaminated water being used to irrigate a further 32.5 million mi (21,670 square kilometres) and another 2 million mi (1,300 square kilometres) covered or destroyed by solid waste. In total, the area accounts for one-tenth of China’s cultivatable land, and is mostly in economically developed areas. An estimated 12 million tonnes of grain are contaminated by heavy metals every year, causing direct losses of 20 billion yuan (US$2.57 billion). [2].

The United States, while having some of the most widespread soil contamination, has actually been a leader in defining and implementing standards for cleanup[3]. Other industrialized countries have a large number of contaminated sites, but lag the U.S. in executing remediation. Developing countries may be leading in the next generation of new soil contamination cases.

Each year in the U.S., thousands of sites complete soil contamination cleanup, some by using microbes that “eat up” toxic chemicals in soil[4], many others by simple excavation and others by more expensive high-tech soil vapor extraction or air stripping. At the same time, efforts proceed worldwide in creating and identifying new sites of soil contamination, particularly in industrial countries other than the U.S., and in developing countries which lack the money and the technology to adequately protect soil resources.


Microanalysis of soil contamination

To understand the fundamental nature of soil contamination, it is necessary to envision the variety of mechanisms for pollutants to become entrained in soil. Soil particulates may be composed of a gamut of organic and inorganic chemicals with variations in cation exchange capacity, buffering capacity, and redox poise.[5] For example, at the extremes, one has a sand component, a coarse grained, inert, and totally inorganic substance; whereas peat soils are dominated by a fine organic material, made of decomposing organic material and highly active. Most soils are mixtures of soil subtypes and thus have quite complex characteristics. There is also a great diversity of soil porosity, ranging from gravels to sands to silt to clay (in increasing order of porosity), pore size, and pore tortuosity (both in decreasing order). Finally there is a wide spectrum of chemical bonding or adhesion characteristics: each contaminant has a different interaction or bonding mechanism with a given soil type.

On balance, some contaminants may literally drain through soils such as sand and gravel and move to other soils or deeper aquifers, while polar or organic chemicals discharged into a clay soil will have a very high adsorption. Thus most soil contamination is the result of pollutants adhering to the soil particle surface, or lodging in interstices of a soil matrix. Clearly the equilibrium reached is a dynamic one, where new pollutants may lodge on new soil particles and the action of groundwater movement may over time transport some of the soil contaminants to other locations or depths.

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.

Health effects

The major concern is that there are many sensitive land uses where people are in direct contact with soils such as residences, parks, schools and playgrounds. Other contact mechanisms include contamination of drinking water or inhalation of soil contaminants which have vaporized. There is a very large set of health consequences from exposure to soil contamination depending on pollutant type, pathway of attack and vulnerability of the exposed population. Chromium and many of the pesticide and herbicide formulations are carcinogenic to all populations. Lead is especially hazardous to young children, in which group there is a high risk of developmental damage to the brain and nervous system, while to all populations kidney damage is a risk.

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 carbamates 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 cause death.

Ecosystem effects

Not unexpectedly, soil contaminants can have significant deleterious consequences for ecosystems[6]. 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 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 potentially species extinction.

Effects occur to agricultural lands which have certain types of soil contamination. Contaminants typically alter plant metabolism, most commonly to reduce crop yields. This has a secondary effect upon soil conservation, since the languishing crops cannot shield the earth's soil mantle from erosion phenomena. Some of these chemical contaminants have long half-lives and in other cases derivative chemicals are formed from decay of primary soil contaminants.

Regulatory framework

United States of America

Until about 1970 there was little widespread awareness of the worldwide scope of soil contamination or its health risks. In fact, areas of concern such as Love Canal were often viewed as unusual or isolated incidents. In the U.S., passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 required careful analysis of the consequences of any federally funded project. Passage of The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) by the U.S. Congress in 1976 established guidelines not only for handling of hazardous materials but transport and hauling[7], such as required in cleanup of soil contaminants[8]. In 1980 the U.S. Comprehensive Emergency Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) was passed[9] to establish, for the first time, strict rules on legal liability for soil contamination. Not only did CERCLA stimulate identification and cleanup of thousands of sites, but it raised awareness of property buyers and sellers to make soil contamination a focal issue of land use and management practices; moreover, preparation of a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment has become standard practice for many parts of the western world and Japan.

While estimates of remaining soil cleanup in the U.S. may exceed 200,000 sites, in other industrialized countries there is a lag of identification and cleanup functions. Lesser developed countries are not without a share of the creation of soil contamination. Even though their use of chemicals is far less than industrialized countries, often their controls and regulatory framework is quite weak. For example, some persistent pesticides banned in the U.S. for decades are in widespread uncontrolled use in developing countries. It is worth noting that the cost of cleaning up a soil contaminated site can range from as little as about $10,000 for a small spill, which can be simply excavated, to millions of dollars for a widespread event, especially for a chemical that is very mobile such as MTBE or perchloroethylene.


China, an economy that regularly records double digit annual economic growth, has little or no legislation to protect the environment. Currently, given the amount of land in question (up to one-tenth of China's cultivatable land may be polluted), the degree of the pollution in specific locations is unclear, making both prevention and remedy difficult. There are no laws or environmental standards regarding soil. Funding is limited, too, so there is little advanced scientific study of China’s soil taking place. The severity of the pollution is not understood by either the public or business, and the situation is worsening. [10]china has created most land pollution

United Kingdom

Two sources of published generic guidance are currently commonly used in the UK:

  • The Contaminated Land Exposure Assessment (CLEA) Guidelines
  • The Dutch Standards.

Guidance by the Inter Departmental Committee for the Redevelopment of Contaminated Land (ICRCL) has been formally withdrawn by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), for use as a prescriptive document to determine the potential need for remediation or further assessment. Therefore, no further reference is made to these former guideline values.

Other generic guidance that may be referred to (to put the concentration of a particular contaminant in context), include the United States EPA Region 9 Preliminary Remediation Goals (US PRGs), the US EPA Region 3 Risk Based Concentrations (US EPA RBCs) and National Environment Protection Council of Australia Guideline on Investigation Levels in Soil and Groundwater.

The CLEA model published by DEFRA and the Environment Agency (EA) in March 2002 sets a framework for the appropriate assessment of risks to human health from contaminated land, as required by Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. As part of this framework, generic Soil Guideline Values (SGVs) have currently been derived for ten contaminants to be used as “intervention values”. These values should not be considered as remedial targets but values above which further detailed assessment should be considered.

Three sets of CLEA SGVs have been produced for three different land uses, namely

  • residential (with and without plant uptake)
  • allotments
  • commercial/industrial

It is intended that the SGVs replace the former ICRCL values. It should be noted that the CLEA SGVs relate to assessing chronic (long term) risks to human health and do not apply to the protection of ground workers during construction, or other potential receptors such as groundwater, buildings, plants or other ecosystems. The CLEA SGVs are not directly applicable to a site completely covered in hardstanding, as there is no direct exposure route to contaminated soils.

To date, the first ten of fifty-five contaminant SGVs have been published, for the following: arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, inorganic mercury, nickel, selenium ethyl benzene, phenol and toluene. Draft SGVs for benzene, naphthalene and xylene have been produced but their publication is on hold. Toxicological data (Tox) has been published for each of these contaminants as well as for benzo[a]pyrene, benzene, dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs, naphthalene, vinyl chloride, 1,1,2,2 tetrachloroethane and 1,1,1,2 tetrachloroethane, 1,1,1 trichloroethane, tetrachloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, 1,2-dichloroethane, trichloroethene and xylene. The SGVs for ethyl benzene, phenol and toluene are dependent on the soil organic matter (SOM) content (which can be calculated from the total organic carbon (TOC) content). As an initial screen the SGVs for 1% SOM are considered to be appropriate.

Cleanup options


Cleanup or remediation is analyzed by environmental scientists who utilize field measurement of soil chemicals and also apply computer models for analyzing transport[11] and fate of soil chemicals. Thousands of soil contamination cases are currently in active cleanup across the U.S. as of 2006. There are several principal strategies for remediation:

  • Excavate soil and remove it to a disposal site away from ready pathways for human or sensitive ecosystem contact. This technique also applies to dredging of bay muds containing toxins.
  • Aeration of soils at the contaminated site (with attendant risk of creating air pollution)
  • Bioremediation, involving microbial digestion of certain organic chemicals. Techniques used in bioremediation include landfarming, biostimulation and bioaugmentation soil biota with commercially available microflora.
  • Extraction of groundwater or soil vapor with an active electromechanical system, with subsequent stripping of the contaminants from the extract.
  • Containment of the soil contaminants (such as by capping or paving over in place).

See also


  1. ^ Risk Assessment Guidance for Superfund, Human Health Evaluation Manual, Office of Emergency and Remedial Response, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C. 20450
  2. ^
  3. ^ Rainer Stegmann, Treatment of Contaminated Soil: Fundamentals, Analysis, Applications, Springer Verlag, Berlin 2001
  4. ^ D.A. Crossley, Roles of Microflora and fauna in soil systems, International Symposium on Pesticides in Soils, Feb. 25, 1970, University of Michigan
  5. ^ Negraa, Christine; Donald S. Rossa and Antonio Lanzirottib (2005). "Oxidizing Behavior of Soil Manganese: Interactions among Abundance, Oxidation State, and pH". Soil Science Society of America Journal 1 (69): 97-95. Retrieved on 2006-11-11.
  6. ^ Michael Hogan, Leda Patmore, Gary Latshaw and Harry Seidman Computer modelng of pesticide transport in soil for five instrumented watersheds, prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Southeast Water laboratory, Athens, Ga. by ESL Inc., Sunnyvale, California (1973)
  7. ^ Jeff Belfiglio, Thomas Lippe and Steve Franklin, Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites, Stanford Environmental Law Society, Palo Alto, Ca. (1981)
  8. ^ U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Public Law 94-580, 90 Statute 2796 (codified at 40 U.S.C., 6901-6987 (1976 and suppl III 1979)
  9. ^ U.S. Comprehensive Emergency Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) Public Law, codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 9601 to 9675, enacted by the United States Congress on December 11, 1980
  10. ^
  11. ^ S.K. Gupta, C.T. Kincaid, P.R. Mayer, C.A. Newbill and C.R. Cole, ‘’A multidimensional finite element code for the analysis of coupled fluid, energy and solute transport’‘, Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory PNL-2939, EPA contract 68-03-3116 (1982)
  • [1] - Article on soil contamination in China
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Soil_contamination". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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