UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 8. Status of soil pollution in Europe

Sources of soil pollution in Europe

Europe has a long industrial history, which has left an indelible fingerprint on its environment, especially in soils (Liedekerke et al., 2014). From the mining and smelting emissions of the Phoenician, Roman and Greek civilisations, through the industrial revolution to the present day, human activities in Europe have released significant quantities of multiple contaminants into the environment, for which soil is the main reservoir (McConnell et al., 2018).

There are an estimated 2.8 million potentially polluted sites in Europe, 19 percent of which need, or might need, remediation or risk-reduction measures (Payá Pérez and Rodríguez Eugenio, 2018). Industrial and commercial activities and waste disposal and treatment had caused almost two-thirds of point-source soil pollution in Europe (Liedekerke et al., 2014). The production sector (energy production, petroleum industry, chemical industry, metal-working industry, electronic industry, glass, ceramics, stone, soil industry, textile, leather industry, etc.) had contributed the most to point-source soil pollution than had the service sector (petrol stations, car service stations, dry cleaning, printers, etc.). To a lesser extent, mining activities were also important contributors to soil pollution, especially in Cyprus, Slovakia, and North Macedonia (Liedekerke et al., 2014).

Despite great advances in adequate waste management in the region drove by stringent legislation, recent assessments indicate that inadequate waste management is still an important source of point soil pollution in Europe, especially in countries where open dump is a common practice such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Turkey (EEA, 2019b; Kaza et al., 2018). Trace elements and a wide range of organic contaminants included PAHs, petroleum and aromatic hydrocarbons including BTEX, POPs and PCBs dominate point-source polluted soils in Europe (EEA, 2019b; Martín-Olmedo et al., 2019).

Agriculture has traditionally been the major land use activity in Europe, currently covering around 200 thousand ha of land, representing in average about 39 percent of total land area (FAOSTAT, 2020). Despite not have been considered in the reports by Liedekerke et al. (2014) nor by Martín-Olmedo et al. (2019), agriculture significantly contributes to diffuse soil and water pollution in Europe (EEA, 2019b). Trace elements from fertilisers (e.g. cadmium from mineral fertilizers) and some fungicides (mainly copper), and pesticide residues are the contaminants of major concern in the region in agricultural soils (EEA, 2019b; Silva et al., 2019). Contaminants of emerging concern, such as microplastics, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, and PFASs, are still poorly studied and require further attention, as preliminary studies indicate a significant burden of these contaminants in European soils (Brusseau, Anderson and Guo, 2020; Dulio et al., 2018; Meixner et al., 2020).

It is also important to take into account the long-range atmospheric transport (LRT) and deposition of organic contaminants affecting European soils (see Chapter 5). High-altitude mountain soils show organic contaminant concentrations similar to forested areas closer to urban and industrial settings (Grimalt et al., 2004). Nationwide studies in France also identified LRT as a plausible explanation for the presence and relatively high concentrations of persistent organic contaminants, such as PCBs and PAHs, in soils distant from point source emissions (Villanneau et al., 2013, 2011).

8.2.1. Industrial and commercial activities

European countries have a long industrial history that, together with commercial activities and waste disposal and treatment, have caused almost two thirds of the EU’s point source soil pollution. The main contaminants associated with these industrial activities are mineral oils, trace elements (such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel, or zinc) and organic contaminants such as halogenated and non-halogenated solvents, PCBs and PAHs. PFASs are also a major concern in Europe having been detected in soils, groundwater, biota, and in the European population. PFASs are used in a wide range of consumer products and industrial applications, although the exact amount and type of PFASs used in Europe are unknown. There are an estimated 100 000 PFAS-emitting sites.

In the European Union Member States, about 2.8 million sites are suspected to be potentially polluted, although only one quarter are included in national registries. In Switzerland, 60 percent of polluted sites correspond to industrial areas while the rest are landfills and areas where industrial accidents occurred. High levels of cadmium in Slovenian soils originate primarily from the past industrial activity, such as zinc smelters. According to the 2014 report of the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection, industrial activities are responsible for three quarters of the polluted sites in the country, mostly due to inadequate treatment or disposal of industrial wastewater, waste and hazardous materials.

8.2.2. Agriculture

Agriculture has traditionally been the major land use activity in Europe and represents around 25 percent of Europe’s land cover (194 304 ha of land). Agriculture represents a significant source of diffuse pollution in the region, mainly due to the use of agrochemicals. The analysis of agricultural soils sampled under the European Union LUCAS survey showed that 80 percent of agricultural soils contain pesticide residues, with 58 percent of soils presenting a mixture of pesticides residues and only 17 percent of soils being free of pesticides. The main pesticides detected in agricultural soils were glyphosate and its by-products, DDT and its residues and fungicides. In France, the most common pesticide found in soils were by-products of lindane, especially in the northern region, that may have come from volatilization of lindane applied to intensively cultivated areas, which was then transported by prevailing winds coming from the southwest and deposited in a densely inhabited basin. In Finland, about 15 percent of groundwater samples situated in intensive agricultural areas contained pesticides and exceed quality standards for pesticide content.

Although the gross nitrogen balance has decreased in recent decades in European Union Member States, 45 percent of nitrogen inputs still come from synthetic fertilisers, while manure accounts for 38 percent of nitrogen inputs. Approximately 65-75 percent of agricultural soils in the EU28 exceed the critical value for N in runoff to surface water (2.5 mg N/l) above which eutrophication is expected. About 40 percent of agricultural soils would need a reduction of N inputs to avoid eutrophication of surrounding water bodies. In North Macedonia, animal husbandry and manure management, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizer and manure additions to soils were responsible of 89 percent emissions of ammonia (NH3). This percentage increases to 98 percent of ammonia emissions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Trace elements such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, mercury, nickel, lead, and zinc have also been detected in agricultural soils originated from multiple sources, including pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, animal manure, liming materials, sewage sludge, compost, and atmospheric deposition. About 21 percent of agricultural soils in Europe present levels of cadmium above the regulatory thresholds.

8.2.3. Urban settings

Around 73 percent of Europe’s population lives in cities, and this proportion is expected to reach 82 percent by 2050. Urban soils are affected by car exhaust emission, improper waste disposal and a variety of household contaminants, especially organic contaminants.

Around 640 million tonnes of construction and demolition, municipal, and electronic waste are produced in Europe annually, of which only half is recycled on average, although recycling rate is reduced to 30 percent for electronic waste. Israel has a high rate of landfilling with only 21 percent of the country’s municipal solid waste (MSW) recycled while the rest is disposed in landfills that are reaching maximum capacity and have the potential to contaminate soil and groundwater.

Although there has been significant progress in Europe in terms of landfill control and containment measures, there are still numerous illegal landfills scattered throughout Europe. For example, about 340 illegal dumpsites were identified in Bosnia Herzegovina in 2018.

8.2.4. Mining

Mining activities are common and widely distributed in Europe, but differences in regulations have led to an unequal impact on the environment. Mining and mineral processing has played a vital part in the history and economy of the Western Balkans and Turkey, especially of antimony, cobalt, copper, gallium, lead, rare-earth elements, zinc and asbestos. Abandoned and orphan sites are scattered throughout the region without the proper containment measures in place. Montenegro has seen an increase in hazardous waste from mining in the last few years, reaching values of 326 000 tonnes in 2019. Mineral and coal mining activities in Serbia have also left some long-lasting industrial landfills that pose a risk to neighbouring populations.

In Spain, at the Guadiamar site, several hundred cubic metres of mine tailings were discharged into nearby water systems affecting 4 600 ha of agriculture and pastures due to the dam break in 1998. In Hungary, in 2010, about 1 million m3 of red sludge suspension was released into the environment due to a failure of a tank wall in an alumina industry. The emergency response and remediation measures cost the Hungarian government about EUR 127 million. In Montenegro, 3.9 million tonnes of toxic flotation tailings from the lead and zinc mines were deposited on the banks of the Ćehotina River.

8.2.5. Military activities

Many countries in Europe still suffer from the legacy of pollution caused by arms manufacturing industries, as well as chemical weapons stockpiles, and munitions left over from the First and Second World Wars. In Germany alone, some 3 200 polluted sites await remediation.

The Kosovo conflict has also left stockpiles of weapons in the Balkan countries. In Montenegro, despite demilitarisation and management of the remaining weapons, the soil polluted by depleted uranium bombs still poses a risk to the population. Routine measurements are now being carried out at four sites in Serbia to monitor depleted uranium contamination. After the war, Serbia had the highest rate of malignant tumours in Europe, with more than 30 000 people diagnosed with cancer in the first 10 years since the bombing, and a mortality rate of one in three cases. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the most landmine-polluted countries in the world. To date, it has some 1 366 settlements affected by landmines, which limit agricultural and livestock activities, due to the release of trace elements and organic contaminants such as PAHs or PCBs.