Soil Pollution: The Cause and Effect of Contaminants in our Earth
We have seen almost every human activity lead to some sort of pollution in one way or another. Carbon Dioxide emissions increase air pollution. Plastic waste and chemicals contaminate our waters. The soil of Earth is no different. With the amount of waste human continue to produce, with the addition of many other factors, soil pollution is a serious and growing problem. It leads to many consequences for our Earth and without a plan to control it, those consequences might become irreversible.
First off, what is soil pollution? Soil pollution or soil contamination is the contamination of soil with harmful substances that can adversely affect the quality of the soil and the health of those living on it. Soil pollution can happen in any number of ways. The other types of pollution also feed into soil pollution. Acid rain can contaminate the soil and contaminated water can get absorbed by the soil. In turn, pollutants in the soil can contribute to air and water pollution as well. Everything always comes full circle.
Soil pollution differs slightly from land pollution because while they are affected in some of the same ways by the same contaminates, soil pollution focuses solely on the soil. While land pollution includes all of the land. However, the causes and effects are roughly the same.
Soil pollution can affect, pretty much, everything that lives on land. Plants, wildlife, humans and of course, the soil itself. This is in part, due to the sheer population growth that is happening. As the human population continues to grow, so does our activities. The same activities that are leading to all of the problems we have now. Of course, the solution is not to just stop making babies, but to lessen our harmful activities. Lower our carbon footprint, watch our energy usage, recycle much more, use renewable resources for power.
Causes of Soil Pollution
Trash, chemicals, contribution from other pollution and many more. Here, we will discuss many different ways that our soil can become polluted. The causes behind soil pollution are many and growing. One of the biggest factors is agriculture. Most farms use pesticides to protect their crops and ensure a bountiful harvest. However, while they may promote plant growth, they also contain many harmful chemicals that end up being absorbed into the soil. Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, increase the salinity of the soil, making it imperfect for crop bearing and adversely affecting the microorganisms that help the soil and plants function.
Of course it is not just the chemical contaminants in the pesticides that is causing soil pollution, nitrogen rich fertilizers, and untreated manure also have adverse effects on the soil. The fertilizers add more nitrogen into the ground which, while promotes better plant growth, throws the nitrogen cycle off balance. Untreated manure can contain bad bacteria from the animals, especially those raised in factory farms. These pollutants can actually end up in our food. If it is not good for the Earth, it is not good for us. It is as simple as that.
Other types of contamination usually come from radioactive fallout, the rupture of underground storage tanks, leaching of wastes from landfills, direct discharge of industrial wastes into the soil, harmful irrigation practices, pipeline leakage and much more.
This cause is what feeds landfills. All of the trash from urban areas like cities and towns gets thrown into a landfill, which then sits there degrading and releasing whatever chemicals that waste contains. Plastics are a big contributor. Many plastic bottles contain chemicals in them that are not only dangerous to human health, but to the Earth as well. As they degrade, which can take decades, they release those chemicals into the ground. Unless they are burned, in which case, the chemicals get shot into the air.
Industrial pollutants are mainly discharged from various origins such as pulp and paper mills, chemical fertilizers, oil refineries, sugar factories, tanneries, textiles, steel, distilleries, coal and mining industries, drugs, and petroleum and engineering industries. These pollutants end up in the soil due to accidents like oil spills or by illegal industrial waste dumping. These pollutants affect and alter the chemical and biological properties of the soil.
Different Types of Soil Pollution
There are many different pollutants that come from any number of sources. Agriculture, industrial practices, landfills, etc. In fact, many pollutants that are more common in water or air pollution, can also cause soil pollution.
These contaminants have a biological origin. These usually include herbicides and insecticides which are commonly used in farming. When the food is processed, these harmful pathogens are discarded as waste. Similarly, in the livestock industry, there are harmful bacteria that develop in the stressed out animals. That bacteria find their way into the soil in the form of manure that is often left untreated. Another organic pollutant is acid rain which is a result from air pollution.
These pollutants are man-made. They often come from industries and construction companies. Other examples of inorganic pollutants are detergents, cosmetics, chlorinated solvents, hydrocarbons, heavy metals from sulfur dioxide, chemical waste, silt from construction, and chemical fertilizers. These can be introduced into the soil by means of dumping, runoff, spills, or by direct means like fertilizing crops.
Impacts of Soil Pollution on the Environment
Soil pollution can be a contributing factor to other forms of pollution like air and water. Toxic chemicals that find their way into the soil can leach into the groundwater or can runoff into nearby streams, lakes, or oceans. Soil also naturally contributes to air pollution by releasing harmful chemical compounds into the atmosphere. Nitrogen escapes through ammonia volatilization and denitrification. The decomposition of organic materials in soil can release sulfur dioxide and other sulfur compounds, causing acid rain.
Effects of Soil Pollution
Pollution of the Earth’s soil can have many harmful effects on ecosystems and the health of humans, plants and animals. The harmful effects from pollution may come from direct contact with soil pollutants or from contact with other sources, such as water or food that has been grown or in contact with polluted soil.
Effects of Soil Pollution on Humans
Many common soil pollutants are also carcinogenic to humans. This means that humans who come into contact with these pollutants are far more likely to develop cancer. For example, regular exposure to benzene is known to cause leukemia in both children and adults. PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls is linked to liver cancer. Soil pollution can aso cause neuromuscular blockage as well as depression of the central nervous system, headaches, nausea, fatigue, eye irritation, and skin rashes.
Even slightly contaminated soil can be harmful to human health. Slightly contaminated soil can harm humans through bioaccumulation. This occurs when plants are grown in lightly polluted soil, which continuously absorbs the molecules of the pollutants. Since the plants can not naturally get rid of these contaminants, they accumulate in the plants system, causing an ever increasing amount of pollution. Animals who then eat those plants, also humans, ingest all of the pollutants that accumulated in that plant. Carnivores who eat those animals, in turn take on all of the pollutants. Whether humans eat the initial animal, the larger animal or the plant itself, we end up taking on all of the pollutants as well.
Heavy Metals in Soil
In addition, the presence of toxic amounts of heavy metals in the soil can cause irreversible effects in the development of children. Lead and mercury are among those heavy metals that are commonly found in soil pollution. Even though lead and mercury can be found naturally in the ground, human activity can lead to dangerous concentrations of the heavy metals which can lead to neurological problems in children and adults. Excessive mercury can also lead to kidney and liver damage. Due to the decreasing amount of fertile soil, it is a common practice in many countries to grow crops on polluted soil.
Effects of Soil Pollution on Plant Life
With the already harmful effects of heavy metals on human health, they also have a very harmful effect on the soil itself. These heavy metals can accumulate in the soil to the point where it is unable to support plant life. Soil pollutants can interfere with the coil chemistry, biology, and structure. When these changes occur, beneficial soil bacteria, microorganisms, nutrients, and the soil chemical process begin to deteriorate to an extent where they diminish the fertility of the soil.
The ecological balance is completely lost. On this basis, the soil becomes unsuitable for crop survival or any other form of vegetation. It can also change the metabolism of plants and lower crop productivity. Of course, when plants take on these contaminants, they can be passed to other members of the food chain, including humans.
Extreme Effects of Soil Pollution
The numerous pollutants that enter the soil can have many long lasting effects on the land. One of the most serious effect is erosion. Erosion is when the topsoil is swept away by the actions of wind, water, ice or just gravity. Even though some erosion is necessary, land pollution is causing an increase in this. Erosion leads to the loss of organic matter and nutrients from the soil. This causes the land to lose its original soil structure and its ability to support plant life, which can result in a reduction in crop production.
Desertification is another result of dryland degradation. This is when arid soil becomes barren and unable to support plant life. Intense growth of population on fragile drylands can create a lot of pressure on the land to support the new life. Such pressure includes producing enough food to sustain the population. This can lead to overgrazing and overcultivation. This can deplete the nutrients of the land at a faster rate than the ecosystem can replicate them. Thus the loss of vegetation leads to further soil erosion because there is nothing to hold the soil in place.
Solutions to Soil Pollution
There are many things that can be done to control soil pollution and reverse its effects. We can start by properly disposing of waste. Instead of throwing away plastics and other products, they should be recycled. This will decrease the amount of landfills which fill our earth with contaminants. As for agricultural practices, farmers should switch to natural fertilizers or treated manure. Bio-pesticides should be used instead of chemical pesticides. Organic fertilizer can be made from animal waste and compost, which are safer alternatives to chemical fertilizers or nitrogen rich fertilizers. In addition to using natural products, a ban should be placed on toxic chemicals.
There is a ban on certain chemicals like lead and BPA in plastic, however many bottles still contain the chemical. For pesticides, the chemicals DDT, BHC, and more should be banned as they pose a certain risk to the health of the environment, animals and humans.
The best thing us regular people can do is raise awareness. Get the facts out in the open and do your best to practice good habits like using renewable energy, recycling, buying organic, not supporting industries who have been known for illegal dumping or using chemicals on the land. Do what you can in your home, neighborhood, community and raise awareness to the people around you.