Identifying the threats beneath our feet

Identifying the threats beneath our feet

In the NOVASOIL project blog we have often talked about what is meant by healthy soil. Despite society’s lack of knowledge about it, we can assure you that it is one of the most complex natural resources and that it performs a multitude of functions.

As we have seen, soils are made up of a variety of natural compounds. When these levels exceed natural values due to various human activities such as spills, fuel burning, agricultural practices and others, the soil is considered to be contaminated.

Officially, contaminated soil is defined as “soil containing contaminating elements in concentrations or quantities that pose a risk to human health or the environment” (Directive 2006/21/EC on the management of waste from extractive industries).

Soil contamination is a global problem that affects both natural ecosystems and human health

Why soil gets contaminated

Soil contamination is a global problem that affects both natural ecosystems and human health. Understanding the causes of this problem is essential if it is to be tackled effectively. Here we look at some of the main causes of soil contamination:

  • Toxic spills: Spills of toxic chemicals such as oil, industrial chemicals and pesticides are a common cause of soil contamination. These spills can occur at storage sites, during transport or as a result of accidents at industrial facilities.
  • Intensive agriculture: The excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture can lead to the accumulation of harmful chemicals in the soil. These chemicals can leach into deeper layers of soil and groundwater, causing long-term contamination.
  • Solid waste: Improper disposal of solid waste, such as industrial, household and construction waste, can contaminate soils. Poorly managed landfills pose a significant threat as toxic chemicals can leach into the surrounding soil.
  • Mining and extraction: The extraction of minerals and natural resources often involves the release of toxic substances into the soil. Mining operations can expose minerals and heavy metals, which can lead to the release of pollutants.
  • Atmospheric pollution: Atmospheric pollutants, such as heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, can be deposited on soil by rainfall or dry deposition. This is particularly important in urban and industrial areas.
  • Construction practices: Construction of roads, buildings and other development projects can disturb the soil and release pollutants. In addition, lack of erosion control measures can lead to sediment contamination of the soil.
  • Radioactive waste: The disposal of radioactive waste, whether from nuclear or medical facilities, can cause serious soil contamination problems if not properly managed.
Soil contamination is a global problem that affects both natural ecosystems and human health

Actions to restore our environment

There are many policies and practices that can help clean up contaminated land and restore the health of our environment. Here are some key actions we can take:

  • Assessment and monitoring: The first step is to identify and assess the extent and severity of the contamination. This includes conducting soil surveys and ongoing monitoring to understand the extent of the problem.
  • In situ remediation: In many cases it is possible to deal with the contamination directly on site. This includes techniques such as bioremediation (using micro-organisms to break down contaminants), phytoextraction (using plants to absorb contaminants) and soil aeration to help break down toxic compounds.
  • Excavation and controlled disposal: In cases of severe contamination, it is sometimes necessary to excavate and dispose of contaminated soil. However, it is essential that this is done in a controlled manner to prevent the spread of contamination to other areas.
  • Urban land remediation: In urban areas, the remediation of contaminated land may include the revitalisation of disused industrial areas or the restoration of brownfield sites for public use.
  • Solid waste management: Ensuring the proper disposal of solid waste and the implementation of safe landfills and landfill sites is essential to prevent future soil contamination.
  • Standards and regulations: Implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations are essential to prevent soil contamination. These regulations should apply to industry, agriculture and other relevant sectors.
  • Education and awareness: Informing society about the dangers of soil contamination and promoting sustainable practices in agriculture and industry is essential. Education can help to prevent future contamination.
  • Ecological restoration: In many areas, restoration of natural ecosystems can help regenerate soil and mitigate contamination. The reintroduction of native vegetation and the restoration of wetlands are examples of such practices.

The aims of the European Union

The European Union is proposing to achieve “zero pollution” of air, water and soil by 2050. In his speech, Frans Timmermans (2021) underlined the importance of protecting citizens’ health and stressed that clean air or soil should not be considered a luxury. He also mentioned the cooperation with Member States, the progress made during the pandemic to improve air quality and the success of the legislation on single-use plastics. The speech underlines the need to implement these goals and overcome the obstacles to a cleaner and healthier environment.

In order to achieve these goals, the following key points are highlighted:

  • Commitment to protecting citizens’ health and the importance of not treating clean air as a luxury.
  • Close cooperation with Member States and the handling of outstanding pollution cases.
  • Recognition of the progress made by some Member States in improving air quality and transport during the pandemic.
  • The success of legislation on single-use plastics and the commitment to develop it further.
  • The need to effectively implement zero pollution targets and overcome barriers to a cleaner and healthier environment.

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