How toxic soil has become a public health issue at home and abroad

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Of all the surrounding environmental factors that could impact a person’s health, the soil underneath one’s feet typically isn’t the first thing to spring to mind. However, contaminated, toxic soil is becoming a greater threat both within the United States and around the globe. Health professionals must pay more attention to the impact it can have on local citizens.

The concern of toxic soil is especially prevalent in farming communities or areas with considerable industrial activity, but it’s also an issue that’s becoming more common in other regions. People come into contact with soil more often than they realize. It’s important for health professionals to weigh the effect contaminated soil can have on citizens in their local communities, and work to educate those at a higher risk.

What causes toxic soil?

Soil can be contaminated or polluted due to a number of different reasons, making this issue important in both rural and urban areas. A few of the main factors causing toxic soil include:

  • Industrial activity: According to experts, industrial processes including mining and manufacturing have historically been the leading cause of soil pollution. This is especially true for operations that center around extracting minerals from the earth – as Conserve Energy Future pointed out, the by-product of these activities is contamination, and when polluted materials are not disposed of in the proper way, they can seep into the soil and cause toxicity. A study from the European Commission noted that unused or abandoned industrial sites could still be releasing chemicals and pollutants into the environment, contributing to further soil contamination.
  • Improper disposal of household waste: While industrial activity is typically viewed as the biggest contributor to improper waste disposal, this problem persists for individual citizens as well. Garbage and personal waste that leaks from sewer systems can contain harmful pollutants that can impact the soil. Permaculture Research Institute noted that some types of waste can take several hundred years to fully decompose, polluting surroundings in the meantime. Plastic products like water bottles can take 450 years to decompose, and bags can take up to 1,000 years, The Balance noted. Disposable diapers can take as long as 500 years to fully decay and dissolve.
  • Rising use of chemicals in agriculture: Industrial companies aren’t the only ones adding to the toxic soil issue. Agricultural activities can also contribute to contaminated soil. As farmers continue to utilize pesticides and fertilizers, the chemicals included in these compounds aren’t completely broken down and become mixed into the soil when crops are watered. Over time, these chemicals not only increase the toxicity level of the soil, but also reduce its fertility. What’s more, chemicals and pesticides that are absorbed by crops enter the soil when plants die and decompose, causing further pollution.
  • Deforestation: Exposing soil through deforestation can also contribute to the level of contamination. Pollution and toxic elements can be more easily introduced into the soil, making the land unable to support crops or other vegetation.
  • Unintended leaks or spills: As noted, leaks within local sewer systems can increase the soil’s toxicity levels. Leaks and spill on a larger scale – including oil leaks that take place during the transport or storage of chemicals – can also lessen the quality of soil and increase its toxicity levels. Chemicals in fuel, for example, may seep into the soil at gas stations, contaminating the soil as well as the surrounding groundwater.

Effects of toxic soil: How human intake happens

Once soil is contaminated, several different effects could happen, none of which is good for the local community.

Soil polluted by chemicals or other harmful activities can eventually become infertile, and incapable of supporting crops and other plant life. This, in turn, can greatly impact food production, preventing local and outlying citizens from getting the nourishment they need. In addition, food grown within toxic soil can become contaminated itself, impacting the health of every person that consumes it.

Deforestation that contributes to toxic soil is also tied to climate change, which can impact the local and global weather and atmospheric conditions.

Individuals that are exposed to toxic soil can become sick, or even die due to its effects. The European Commission noted that human intake of contaminated soil can take place in several different ways, including through:

  • Skin contact: Volatile chemicals and compounds in toxic soil can be absorbed through the skin, known as dermal or cutaneous absorption. This means that people who work with soil either in their jobs or at home could become impacted by its toxicity. For example, an employee digging within an industrial compound, or someone engaged in gardening at home could fall sick if the soil they are working with has been polluted.
  • Inhalation: Fine particles of toxic soil can enter the body through inhalation, which often takes place during agricultural activity. These small particles become lodged in the lungs and can travel to the bloodstream from there. The chances of this type of intake causing sickness or death is very small, but can impact individuals repeatedly exposed to fine soil particles over a long period of time, such as agricultural workers or those living near potentially contaminated farmland.
  • Ingestion: As the European Commission noted, ingestion of contaminated soil happens more often than many people think. Small children are at a particularly high risk of toxic soil ingestion. In addition, adults can be affected by accidentally eating unwashed produce with toxic soil still attached. Toxic chemicals are absorbed through the lining of the mouth, or within the digestive system.

Soil contamination at home and abroad

Recent events show the rising importance of toxic soil, both inside and outside of the United States.

Detroit Metro Times recently reported on soil tests completed at a local toxic waste facility, where researchers found high levels of diesel, copper and arsenic. Heavy metals like this are incredibly dangerous, and especially worrisome within a community where the local water and sewage department is located less than a mile away from the waste facility.

The concentrations of chemicals discovered are well outside safe levels regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. These tests could delay or even halt a planned expansion of the Detroit toxic waste facility, which is already known for its high volume of harmful, stored chemicals, many of which are identified human carcinogens.

U.S. cities aren’t the only regions being affected by toxic soil. A recent report from the Economist noted that the most neglected public health threat in China is the country’s contaminated soil. The country’s Hunan province, known in the past as being the largest producer of rice, is now also the biggest producer of cadmium. Unfortunately, samples of local rice farms show considerable pollution – one farmer’s crops were found to contain 50 percent more cadmium than allowed by Chinese law. The Chinese regulated limit is similar to international standards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited 85 milligrams per kilogram as the maximum allowable level of cadmium in soil.

Overall, China has some of the highest worldwide pollution levels – just over 16 percent of all soil is contaminated, and more than 19 percent of farmland has been contaminated by chemicals like cadmium, lead and arsenic.

Making matters worse is the fact that soil contamination is particularly difficult to repair and resolve.

“A poisoned field can look as green and fertile as a healthy one,” The Economist noted. “[T]oxins remain in the soil for centuries, and are hugely expensive to eradicate.”

Addressing the problem of toxic soil

Soil contamination is an increasingly important threat, and while it’s time- consuming, it’s possible to correct toxicity. Love Canal, a chemical dumping site in upstate New York, for example, was cleaned over the course of 21 years with the removal of 1,200 cubic meters of soil. Where in the past, this site was responsible for the poisoning of numerous New York residents, the region is now free of toxic soil.

Health professionals operating in rural regions – particularly within communities with a lot of farmland – are in a unique position to help address the issue of soil contamination. The first step here is to raise awareness of the issue of toxic soil and how it can impact humans. Education is key for agricultural operations leaders and their workers.

Awareness and education should extend to industrial companies as well. Public health professionals working in areas with a considerable industrial presence can meet with industry business leaders to ensure they’re aware of this threat, and are taking steps to stem its effects by properly storing chemicals and correctly disposing of pollutants created as industrial by-products.

In addition, individual citizens should be aware of the impact of toxic soil, and work to do their part to dispose of household waste in a safe way. Even simple tips like washing off produce and supervising children playing in the yard can help people avoid prevent the intake of potentially toxic soil.

Contaminated soil can affect people in rural and urban communities both inside North America and abroad. Because toxic soil is becoming an increasingly prevalent threat, public health professionals should consider the conditions within their local communities and work to stem the effects.

In order to make an impact, professionals need the right skills. The University of Arizona online Master of Public Health can provide health professionals with the knowledge they need to make a difference in their community.

Recommended Readings:
A global concern: Air pollution increases risk of disease
WHO’s Annual World Health Statistics Report reveals state of global health
Climate change and its impact on public health


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Soil Contamination: Its Causes, Effects, and Solutions