The global dangers of soil pollution

Soil pollution poses a significant threat to agriculture, food security and human health. Factors contributing to soil contamination include mining, war, intensive chemical agriculture and factory waste – all of which see soil being used as dumping space for waste and chemical pollution.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released a report called ‘Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality’ that discusses the severity of the danger across the globe. Little is known about the actual scale of soil pollution, but it’s effects on human health are well-documented.

The FAO report findings

According to the report, soil pollution refers to the “presence in the soil of a chemical or substance out of place and/or present at a higher than normal concentration that has adverse effects on any non-targeted organism. Soil pollution often cannot be directly assessed or visually perceived, making it a hidden danger.”

The report states that no worldwide, systematic investigation of soil pollution has been undertaken, despite the rise in industrial output, agricultural intensification and urbanisation. So far, studies have been limited to certain regions or individual nations, leaving large gaps in our understanding of the extent of the global problem.

“At the national level, many countries around the world have adopted or are currently adopting national regulations to protect their soils, to prevent pollution and to address historic problems of contamination,” reads the report. Plastic waste and e-waste are fast becoming significant contributors to soil pollution.

The FAO has concluded surveys that prioritise threats to the soil. These surveys indicate that soil pollution is the third-most important threat to soil functions in Europe, fourth in North Africa, fifth in Asia, seventh in the Northwest Pacific, eighth in North America, and ninth in sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

Soil pollution is a danger to food and health

Soil pollution can affect global food security as it slows down plant metabolisms, impacts crop yields and can cause harmful chemicals to be absorbed by plants which are then ingested by humans.

Soil pollutants also affect live organisms in the soil, such as worms and moles, that make soil more fertile. Toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and pesticides can have adverse consequences on living organisms, including humans, when contaminated crops are ingested.

“Soil pollution affects the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the health of our ecosystems,” says FAO deputy director general Maria Helena Semedo. “The prevention of soil pollution should be a top priority worldwide,” she adds.

Quick facts from the soil pollution report

  • The production of chemicals has increased significantly in recent years and is expected to grow by 3.4% every year until 2030.
  • Almost half of these chemicals are deemed to be hazardous to the environment and human health.
  • The global production of municipal solid waste is expected to reach 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025.
  • Soils near roads and highways have a higher level of metals, hydrocarbons and other pollutants. These can affect crops and grazing pastures nearby.
  • Around 110 million landmines and unexploded bombs still exist in 64 countries around the world. These war remnants pose a serious risk to farmers and can leak chemicals and heavy metals into the soil.
  • Low- and middle-income countries have increased their reliance on pesticides and chemical agricultural enhancement. In the last ten years, Rwanda and Ethiopia have increased their use of pesticides by six times and Sudan by ten times.
  • Almost all of the soil in the northern hemisphere contains radiation particles at a higher level than normal. This is due to radiation fallout from atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons and disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi.

Ways to prevent soil pollution at home

Not all soil pollution comes from landfills, chemical waste and war. Some of the practices you do at home can contaminate soil or affect its fertility. Here are some tips on how to minimise soil pollution at home:

  • If you use manure, place it on your flower beds in Autumn (April/May in South Africa).
  • Avoid toxic pesticides if possible. There are some natural solutions available that don’t affect the soil as much as strong chemicals.
  • Mix a bit of straw into your mulch to help with absorption of soil-borne contaminants.
  • Pluck weeds from the ground instead of using herbicides.
  • Grow a hedge or erect a fence around your vegetable garden to keep windblown refuse from landing in the soil.
  • Add organic waste from a compost into your flower beds to improve soil fertility, rather than using fertilisers.
  • Don’t dump cigarette butts and small waste items in your garden. The chemicals from the cigarette filters can seep into the soil when it rains.

It’s also important to report any signs of soil pollution, illegal dumping and chemical contamination in your area to your local municipality. Soil pollution has the potential to affect entire populations, and should not be overlooked.


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Written by Joshua Oates


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