UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 4. Environmental, health and socio-economic impacts of soil pollution


Main author: Natalia Rodríguez Eugenio (FAO-GSP)

It is widely and undoubtedly recognized that soil enables and sustains life on Earth (FAO, 2015a; Kutílek and Nielsen, 2015). Soil provides goods and services for the well-being of humans and for the environment thanks to the natural processes that occur within its matrix and the interaction of biotic and abiotic soil components (Doran, 2002; Groot, 1992). Soils host a quarter of the world’s biodiversity and are an essential component of water and nutrients cycles, and in the moderation of the earth’s temperature (Stevenson and Cole, 1999). In addition, many anthropogenic activities depend on soils as a source of raw materials and as support of human infrastructure (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Soil ecosystem services.

Source: FAO, 2015c.

Soils, however, are constantly under threat by multiple anthropogenic and abiotic pressures that cause soil degradation (Figure 2), including physicochemical degradation caused by contaminants, which reduce capacity to provide much-needed ecosystem services (FAO and ITPS, 2015). Global climate change alters precipitation patterns and raises temperatures, leading to the emergence and increased recurrence of pests and diseases and altering water availability. These biotic and abiotic externalities lead to increased dependence on external inputs to ensure soil and crop productivity, which can ultimately exacerbate the input of contaminants into soils (Saha, Ghosh and Basak, 2019). Climate change also alters ecosystem functioning, leading to changes in soil nutrient cycling and availability (Köhler and Triebskorn, 2013). To supply limiting nutrients, farmers increase their reliance on synthetic and organic fertilizers that, if not applied appropriately, can produce negative impacts on ecosystems and organisms. Climate change also directly affects the physicochemical properties of soil that ultimately control and regulate the fate of contaminants (see Chapter 2) (Biswas et al., 2018).

Figure 2. Effects of global change on ecosystems, soils and contaminants fate.

Source: adapted from Köhler and Triebskorn, 2013

Multiple contaminants in soils can exhibit synergistic, antagonistic or additive effects on individual organisms and at the community level (Chen et al., 2015; Guzman-Rangel, Montalvo and Smolders, 2018; Singh et al., 2017). Therefore, the impacts of each threat cannot be assessed individually, but all the major current environmental challenges must be considered together in the risk analysis and the development of holistic responses.

This chapter analyses the effects of soil pollution on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and on human health. Examples illustrating effects of soil pollution on local and global economies are also provided. Finally, an analysis of the impacts of soil pollution on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in included.