UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 7. Status of soil pollution in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia

Knowledge gaps in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia

Despite extensive scientific evidence about its risks to the environment, soil pollution is still not considered as a high priority by policy-makers in Eurasian countries.

Notwithstanding its preparation by a public professional group in 2017, the bill on the management of electrical and electronic waste had yet to be tabled by the Ukrainian Parliament in its 2019 legislative agenda (Environmental Initiatives, 2019). Lack of awareness amongst policy-makers of the legislation’s long-term benefits has meant that they have promoted other bills that they consider a higher priority. This is an example of a knowledge gap between science and policy-making.

Another example is the lack of awareness of the recommendations for the implementation of the Minamata Convention in Ukraine, prepared by the legal initiative group within the framework of the European project “Ukrainian civil society for European-style waste management” (Vojcehovska, Zigul’ova and Gladchuk, 2019). The draft documents propose the following: to establish a system to assess the content of mercury in waste; to introduce an inventory procedure for determining the mercury content in waste; to promote the collection and treatment of fluorescent lamps and undertake awareness-raising programmes. However, after two years of lobbying, negotiating and discussing, there is no evidence that the ratification process has been initiated.

Another problem in the region is the use of different systems to determine the permissible concentration of trace elements and organic substances in the soil. Generally, a combination of old standards established in Soviet times and new standards adopted recently is used. Countries mainly use the so-called “maximum permissible level” value for each element, calculated based on sanitary estimates. Soil is considered to be unpolluted if the concentration of the contaminant is below the maximum permitted level. The approach to calculating these levels differs among governmental institutions and changes frequently, leading to confusion. In some countries, such as Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, ISO standards have been adapted to each country’s conditions. For example, Ukraine has adopted the standard ISO 10381-5: Quality of soil. Sampling. Part 5. Conditions for procedure of exploring the urban and industrial sites concerning the soil pollution (ISO 10381-5:2005, IDT). While the Russian Federation uses “Sanitary-epidemiological requests to the soil quality, (2003)”, in Kazakhstan the maximum permissible levels is used as the level that has been established for various substances suspected of having adverse health impacts.

These standards use different methodologies for analysing the concentration of trace elements in the soil. Analysis by the two methodologies of an identical soil sample would give significantly different results. This leads to difficulties in comparing analytical results between countries, and occasionally even within a single country. The total pollution coefficient (Zc)1 is calculated to summarize the pollution of soil by trace elements, calculated as a ratio between the measured concentration of the chemical element and the natural level of the element in the soil in the study area (based on the literature data) (Goncharuk, 2006; Vorobeichik and Kaigorodova, 2017). This approach is used in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and the Russian Federation.

Risk assessment procedures that focus on measuring effects rather than concentration levels are not common in the Eurasian region. Although scientific research has recommended the use multiple indicator species and bioassays for the assessment, the technique has not been widely accepted or adopted.

The Naroduchi region in northern Ukraine was polluted by radionuclides after the Chernobyl accident and the production of food crops in this area is prohibited. Ukraine lacking indigenous sources of fossil fuels. To reduce its reliance on imports, it investigated alternative fuels, and identified the use of biomass as a potential solution. In the 2000s, a group of scientists from Zhitomir Agricultural University and the company Argobiotech proposed a feasibility study on growing the perennial grass Miscanthus x giganteus (Mxg) on the polluted land. The cultivation technique included the use of plant growth regulators (PGRs) to minimize the accumulation of caesium-137 in the above-ground biomass (Brosse et al., 2012; Nsanganwimana et al., 2014). The four-year study showed that the harvested biomass had significantly lower caesium-137 concentrations than the permitted levels in wood (600 Bq/kg) (Zinchenko et al., 2009; Zinchenko and Zinchenko, 2007). The biomass was processed into pellets, which also complied with the permissible limits for radionuclides. This technology has been presented to the Government at national and regional levels and promoted at numerous conferences and training courses. The proposal has been on the Government’s agenda on several occasions. However, as at 2020, the approach has not yet been adopted, even though its implementation would require little investment and would provide an economic benefit from the polluted soils.

This case illustrates the difficulties in securing political commitment for innovative and scientifically proven environmental solutions.

  • 1 The total pollution coefficient (Zc) is the corrected sum of the excess of metal contents over the regional background level for all studied elements.