“Soil is a living ecosystem, and is a farmer’s most precious asset. A farmer’s productive capacity is directly related to the health of his or her soil.”
Howard Warren Buffett, Educator
Soil Pollution: Causes, Effects & Solutions
Soil pollution (also called soil contamination) can be defined as the occurrence of toxic chemicals in the soil. Pollution refers to the level of contaminants that exceeds the natural concentration of these substances.
Soil pollution often is caused by excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, however, there are many other reasons. The types, causes, effects and also solutions to the soil pollution problem are examined in the following.
Types of Soil Pollutants
- Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons
Causes of Soil Pollution
- Excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides
- Industrial processes
- Spills and leaks
- Waste disposal
- Chemical waste
- Nuclear waste
- Acid rain
- Illegal dumping
- Natural causes
Agriculture is a big source of soil pollution. Through the over-exploitation of the soil, it often loses its fertility. This leads to lower crop yields in the future and thus may lead to food shortages.
Excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides
Another related problem is the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizer. In our industrial farming culture, farmers often use large amounts of chemicals in order to increase their yields. However, this has serious adverse effects on soil quality. Part of the fertilizer and the pesticides are not absorbed by the plants and thus contaminate the soil.
Moreover, since the structure and composition of the soil are changed through the contamination with chemicals, soil pollution increases the likelihood of erosion by air or water.
Industrial production is a great source of soil pollution, especially since the industrial revolution. Our consumption levels have risen steadily since then, leading to an always increasing demand for natural resources and goods made from them.
As a result, we extract large amounts of precious metals and other elements out of the ground. However, people usually do not care about the environment too much. By-products of the production processes are often dumped nearby and thus contaminate the soil.
Deforestation can also lead to soil pollution. Trees, with their roots, ensure the stability of the soil. If trees or whole forests are cleared, the soil is now exposed to wind and water and thus the likelihood for soil erosion increases dramatically.
Spills and leaks
Leaks and spills of all sorts can contaminate the soil. For example, a leak in oil transporting vehicles can lead to contamination of the soil. The problem is even more severe if the leaking transport vehicle carries very dangerous chemicals like nuclear waste. If a leak occurs in this kind of transports, the soil in this area can be contaminated for a very long time.
Littering has become a serious contributor to the soil pollution problem. People often just throw away their garbage and do not care if it is disposed of properly. For instance, this becomes quite clear if we look at how people dispose of their used cigarettes.
They often just throw them on the ground and do not care at all about the adverse consequences for our nature. Since cigarettes contain many harmful substances, the soil is contaminated by this behavior since through rainfalls, these chemicals are washed into the ground and will even eventually reach our groundwater.
If there are no proper waste disposal processes, our waste can cause soil pollution in a severe way. This problem is especially dramatic in developing countries. Many companies that produce in developing countries do not care too much about proper waste disposal management.
They often just dump their industrial waste nearby in order to get rid of it. However, this garbage often contains harmful chemicals that contaminate the soil if not disposed of properly.
In the mining process, raw materials are often processed and crushed to make them useful for further usage. However, for these processes, heavy metals and other chemicals are often used which can contaminate the soil if they are not handled with great care.
Construction processes play an important role in the context of soil pollution since in construction, many chemicals and other harmful substances are used which can contaminate the ground.
Moreover, construction sites often also emit large amounts of toxic dust, which settles in the nearby areas and thus contaminates the air and also the soil.
Transportation, either by private persons or for industrial purposes, contribute heavily to the issue of soil pollution. Vehicles release toxic gases that contaminate the ground and also the air. They also pollute the soil since these chemicals also can cause acid rain.
Landfills can be a great cause for soil contamination if they are not set up properly. If landfills are used, we have to make sure that the materials disposed of in these landfills do not touch the soil. If they get in contact with the ground, the soil can be contaminated by heavy metals and other harmful substances.
If chemical waste is not disposed of in an appropriate manner, it can have severe adverse effects on the soil. Many of these chemicals, especially these which are used in industrial processes, are highly toxic and can contaminate the soil for a quite long period of time.
This problem gets even worse when it comes to nuclear waste. Electricity is often produced through the use of nuclear power plants since it is an effective and rather cheap way to produce energy. However, the by-products of nuclear energy production are highly toxic to the environment.
These by-products are often dumped in storages in the ground. This method solves the problem for a short period of time, however, in the long run, the affected areas will be contaminated for a very long period of time and thus we will not be able to use them for future settlement or agricultural activities.
Another contributor to soil pollution is acid rain. Acid rain is mainly caused by air pollution. When it rains, the contaminated air will add chemicals to the rain which increases the level of acidity. An increase in acidity will lead to soil pollution and affect the vegetation in an adverse way.
Illegal dumping has become a huge problem, especially in poor countries. In order to meet our demand for material goods, industries have to process large amounts of resources. The by-products of the production process have to be disposed of somehow.
If the disposal process is not set up properly and the garbage is dumped in nearby lakes, rivers or other natural places, the soil is contaminated in a severe way.
The illegal dumping problem is especially severe in poor countries and countries with high corruption, since officials are often bribed to tolerate illegal dumping.
Most of the causes of soil pollution are man-made, however, there are also a few natural contributors to the soil pollution problem. For example, there can be natural chemical processes that may lead to pollution of the soil if certain elements get in touch with each other.
Effects of Soil Pollution
- Health effects
- Effect on microorganisms
- Effects on animals
- Effects on the fertility of plants
- Effects on the growth behavior of plants
- Reduction in crop yields
- Effects on aquatic life
- Contamination of the groundwater
- Increase in algae
- Changes in pH-levels
- Effects on soil structure
- Air pollution
Soil pollution can have severe public health effects. If the soil is contaminated, the plants cultivated on this soil are also contaminated. Through the food chain, this also has adverse effects on humans. Since we consume vegetables and fruit, we will be contaminated as well. Moreover, farm animals also consume these contaminated crops.
By consuming these farm animals at a later stage, we will be contaminated as well. This in turn can cause severe health conditions for humans. Moreover, these chemicals can also lead to changes in genetic structure and thus can cause severe health issues for future generations.
Effect on microorganisms
Microorganisms are harmed by soil pollution since they are usually quite sensitive to a change in their natural environmental conditions. Through the contamination of soil with heavy metals and other harmful substances, these microorganisms are often not able to adjust to the new circumstances appropriately and thus will die off.
Since all natural processes are connected with each other, the decline in microorganisms may cause chain reactions which turn out to have great adverse effects on the whole environmental system.
Effects on animals
All kinds of animals are affected by soil pollution. Many animals eat crops or plants in order to meet their energy demand. However, if the soil and therefore also the crops are contaminated, the animals eating the crops and plants get contaminated as well. Similar to the adverse effect on humans, soil pollution can also have severe health effects on animals.
Effects on the fertility of plants
Moreover, the fertility of plants is likely to be reduced due to the issue of soil pollution. Since plants usually are quite sensitive to changes in their natural environmental conditions, soil contamination can lead to a decline in fertility of the affected plants.
Effects on growth behavior of plants
The growth behavior of plants can also be affected by soil pollution. Since plants usually require a stable level of acidity and also of nutrient supply, a change in these parameters through soil pollution will likely lead to adverse effects on the growth of plants.
Reduction in crop yields
Soil pollution is also likely to lead to a reduction in crop yields. When the natural environments of plants are contaminated with harmful chemicals, they are usually not able to adapt to these new circumstances in a short period of time. Thus, also the crop yields will be lower compared to an environment without pollution.
Effects on aquatic life
Aquatic life is indirectly affected by soil pollution. Since through the excessive use of pesticides and also through the emission of toxic gases from industrial processes, harmful chemicals will eventually reach our rivers, lakes and seas. Thus, sea animals and plants will also be adversely affected by soil pollution.
Contamination of the groundwater
If the soil is contaminated with chemicals and other harmful substances, it is just a matter of time when these chemicals will reach the groundwater. Through heavy rainfalls, these chemicals will eventually be washed through the soil and thus contaminating our groundwater.
Increase in algae
Soil contamination also leads to an increase in algae production. Since fertilizers contain substances that support the growth of algae, when these chemicals eventually end up in rivers and lakes, these water environments will face an increased production of algae. This in turn is likely to lower oxygen levels which can cause the death of many water animals.
Changes in pH-levels
Soil pollution also leads to a change in pH-levels. The pH-level measures the acidity of an environment or a substance. For example, if the soil is contaminated and the pH-level changes because of this, plants will usually suffer since they are quite sensitive to changes in pH-levels and crop yields are therefore likely to drop due to this issue.
Effects on soil structure
In addition, the structure of the soil itself can change due to contamination with certain chemicals. This can lead to an increased probability of erosion and may also harm fertility of the soil.
Through the aeration of soils, soil pollution may also contribute to an increase in air pollution.
Solutions to the Soil Pollution Problem
- Government regulations
- Reduction in consumption
- Reduction in the use of fertilizers and pesticides
- Switch from conventional to organic products
- Avoid littering
- Avoid the use of fossil fuels
- Organic gardening
- Proper waste disposal
- Wetland restoration
- Convince others
In order to reduce the problem of soil pollutions, governments around the world have to take measures and introduce strict regulations. This means a strict control on the operation of landfills to make sure that the soil is not contaminated.
Moreover, illegal dumping has to be stopped. This may be accomplished by higher fines and more controls. The use of fertilizers and pesticides should be restricted in order to prevent soil pollution.
Moreover, industries have to be stopped from excessive emission of harmful gases which in turn leads to acid rain. Proper waste disposal processes should be mandatory for industries to get rid of their garbage in an environmental-friendly way.
In addition, the process of deforestation, especially in the area of tropical rainforests, has to be prohibited by local governments.
Another measure to mitigate the soil pollution problem is reforestation. On the one hand, an increase in trees means that more harmful gases can be filtered and thus the air gets cleaner which also results in less acid rain and therefore in less soil pollution. On the other hand, an increase in forests protects the surface and thus prevents erosions from wind and water.
Reduction in consumption
Everyone of us can mitigate the soil pollution problem in our daily life through a reduction in consumption. For the production of material goods, precious metals and other elements have to be extracted from the ground.
Often, the extraction process of these elements includes the use of toxic elements that contaminate the soil. Moreover, in the production process, harmful gases are emitted by industries which in turn can lead to acid rain which further contaminates the soil.
We can also contribute to less soil pollution when we recycle things properly. The better the recycling process is, the more material can be reused and less material is wasted.
As a result, recycling prevents the depletion of resources and therefore indirectly contributes to a reduction in soil contamination.
Through bioremediation, the contaminated soil can be decontaminated in a natural way. Certain microorganisms are used in order to degrade the target pollutants. Thus, the level of contamination can likely be reduced.
Reduction in the use of fertilizer and pesticides
Another crucial step for a reduction in soil pollution is a reduction in the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers are used by farmers in order to increase crop yields. Pesticides protect plants and crops to be eaten by animals or insects.
However, pesticides and fertilizers contain harmful elements which contribute to soil pollution. Farmers can contribute to a reduction in soil pollution if they get aware of the problem and thus reduce the use of these substances.
Switch from conventional to organic products
We can also contribute to the mitigation of the soil pollution problem through the shift from conventional to organic products. Conventional products are usually much cheaper and thus consumers are quite eager to consume them.
However, through the excessive use of pesticides, the level of contamination with harmful substances is usually much higher in conventional products than in organic products.
With the switch from conventional to organic products, we can contribute to less soil pollution since in organic agriculture, much less harmful substances are allowed.
This problem seems to be quite easy to fix, however, littering is still a big problem. People seem not to care how their actions affect our planet. People just throw their garbage on the ground instead of using trash bins on a daily basis.
Stopping this behavior is crucial for the goal of a reduction in soil pollution since the soil absorbs the toxic elements from trash on the ground.
Avoid the use of fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are used by industries as well as in our daily life, for example by the use of our cars. Fossil fuels contribute to soil pollution since the burning of these fuels causes harmful gases which lead to acid rain.
This rain contaminates the soil and makes it more acid, thus harming the whole ecosystem. We can thus mitigate the soil contamination problem by avoiding the consumption of fossil fuels in our daily life. Moreover, the reduction of consumption products made with the help of fossil fuels will further mitigate the issue.
A further step to mitigate soil pollution can be accomplished by organic gardening. If you have a garden or a balcony, you could plant part of your food in an organic way instead of buying conventional food from the store. Thus, you can contribute to a lower level of total fertilizer and pesticides used and therefore to less soil pollution.
Proper waste disposal
We have to also assure that our waste is disposed of properly. This means we should separate garbage in our daily life. Moreover, it has to be assured that industries have proper waste disposal processes and do not dump their trash in nearby rivers, lakes or other storage spaces in nature.
The restoration of wetlands can mitigate the soil pollution problem to a certain degree. With the help of natural processes, microorganisms in the wetlands can degrade part of the contaminants and thus improve the soil quality.
As with many problems, we can make our daily contribution in order to mitigate soil pollution. However, the next step is to make sure that we convince others. By doing so, we can even increase our impact on the mitigation of the problem.
Soil pollution has become a big problem for the environment, especially after the industrial revolution period. The increase in our consumption levels has led to all sorts of problems related to soil pollution. In order to mitigate this problem, everyone of us can make his or her contribution.
Moreover, governments have to make sure that there are strict regulations on industries that pollute soil directly or indirectly. If we all make our contribution and also convince others, we can make a huge impact on a daily basis in order to reduce the soil pollution problem and ensure a livable future for further generations.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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