by Alyssa Leavy | Zoom Out Mycology
An introductory guide to an environmental hazard buried in mystery.
1. What is soil and what do we use it for?
Let’s start with the basics. Soil is a porous medium consisting of minerals, water, gases and organic matter (humus, not hummus) that supports biodiversity. (Extension) These components provide a universal foundation with infinite uses.
A few of these uses are growing crops, filtering rainwater for underground aquifers, and landscaping, but soil weaves its way into all five sectors of the economy. We’ll dive into that concept more at the end of the month! This post will cover what soil pollution is, how it affects us, and how we can potentially counter that pollution with more sustainable practices.
2. What is soil pollution?
Soil pollution is the presence of contaminants that exceeds naturally existing or acceptable levels, which are determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Acceptable levels vary based on your location and are determined by a soil screening (more on that later). Concentrations decide what remediation needs to take place. Different thresholds exist for moderate and severe contamination, which poses a serious, acute health hazard and must be addressed immediately.
3. What is considered a contaminant? (EPA)
4. What causes soil pollution?
Soil pollution can happen naturally through microbial activity and decomposition of organisms (e.g., plants and animals). Contaminants can also infiltrate soil from the atmosphere through precipitation, wind activity, soil disturbances or nearby bodies of water bodies. (Environmental Pollution Center) When a threshold is reached, soil edges over the tipping point and is considered polluted.
Although pollution can happen naturally, it is most often anthropogenic (man-made). (Environmental Pollution Center) A prime example of anthropogenic pollution was covered in an earlier post about a jet fuel spill in Virginia Beach, VA, by contributor Luisa Black. Another way fossil fuels inadvertently cause pollution is from emissions and wear on vehicle parts, specifically brakes. The map below shows the concentration of pollutants identified in Oakland, CA. The worst areas were busy roads, like highways, high traffic areas where drivers were braking constantly, and entrance ramps where drivers needed to accelerate, increasing their fuel demand. (Environmental Defense Fund)
The most critical source of contamination is the legal and illegal dumping of chemicals into landfills without proper containment. Chemical dumping is a legacy issue that dates back to the industrial revolution. That legacy pollution has compounded over time and is exacerbated by current practices. A few cases of soil pollution caused by inadequate landfilling practices are detailed in the following section.
5. What is the effect on human health?
Contaminants harmful to our health are classified as mutagens, volatiles or carcinogens by the EPA. (EPA) People living near polluted land have higher incidences of migraines, nausea, fatigue, miscarriage and skin disorders. Long-term effects include cancer, leukemia, reproductive disorders, kidney and liver damage, and central nervous system failure. Children often suffer from developmental problems and weakened immune systems. (Hunker)
Love Canal, NY
Love Canal was an ideal suburban neighborhood in Niagra Falls, NY built in the 1950’s on land from the Hooker Chemical Company. Hooker had used the area as an industrial dumping site for over 21,000 tons of chemical waste before redeploying it to the city for development. (Geneseo) In the winter of 1977, that waste began to surface in backyards, basements and playgrounds. The area suffered high incidences of stillborn births, miscarriages and birth defects from over 400 toxic substances in the air, water and soil. (EPA) Since then the town of Love Canal has become a landmark example of the hazards of soil pollution, prompting Congress to establish the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) also known as Superfund. (EPA)
Ayaha Valley, Somalia
In Somalia's Ayaha valley near the city of Hargeisa, the Desert Locust Control Organisation (DLCO) stored pesticides during the the late Siyad Barre war of 1991. The pesticides were intended to protect against pests like grain-eating birds, the armyworm and the tsetse fly. However, drums holding 14,200 liters of chemicals like fenitrothion, malathion, diazinon and Dursban, were punctured by stray bullets or dumped by local residents. These 55-gallon drums were a precious resource used to store drinking water. Noor Ahmed Ibrahim, director-general of the Somaliland Ministry of Agriculture, suspects that deformities reported in children and premature deaths are linked to contamination of local land and water supply, and use of the tainted drums. (Relief Web)
Although water pollution will be addressed in more detail in a post next month, here’s a teaser about when soil and water pollution meet.
This example hits close to home as a City Islander. The Pelham Bay Landfill is within a mile and half of my parents’ house, and within striking range of all the places we frequented as kids: the baseball and softball fields, Orchard Beach, Thomas Pell’s wildlife sanctuary, and the 6 train stops. In the late 80’s and early 90’s twelve children were diagnosed with leukemia. Parents and residents were outraged to learn that the illness was tied to the local landfill. (NY Times) The map below shows the effect of the pollution on childhood leukemia rates in the area.
Three of the twelve children diagnosed lost their battle. To protect others from the 1.1 million gallons of illegally dumped waste, the Pelham Bay Landfill was condemned as a Superfund site in 1990. (NY Times)
Even though the landfill has been closed for decades, you can still smell the stench of sewage seeping into the Hutchinson River at low tide. And City Island residents like my dad can recall the spontaneous combustion caused by escaping gas in the 70’s along with oxygen-deprived “red tides” that suffocated fish in the Long Island Sound.
6. What is a Superfund site?
Like the Pelham Bay landfill, any site that needs the government to be involved in cleanup efforts, is considered a U.S. Superfund site. (EPA) The term Superfund is synonymous with the worst pollution in the country and the EPA is charged with surveying sites and creating site-specific remediation based on future use. Thankfully the landfill is in the process of being converted to parkland and is no longer deemed a Superfund site.
The eighty-nine acres were covered with soil and seeded with grass. Twenty-six trees, shrubs and bushes were also planted to integrate the landfill into its surrounding environment. Finally, leachate is piped from the landfill to the Hunts Point Water Pollution Control Plant for treatment. (NYC Environmental Protection) As I write this post my worlds collide; the treatment plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn is directly across the street from my current job. I now realize the familiar scent of the plant is the leachate from the landfill back home in the Bronx. Ahhhh, home sweet home.
Pictured below is a map of the U.S. Superfund sites on the National Priority List. You won’t find the Pelham Bay Landfill, but you will find Newtown Creek, which is adjacent to the treatment plant.
7. How do individual contaminants affect human health?
To understand the importance of remediation teams’ the herculean efforts, refer to this abbreviated summary of the side effects of various contaminants.
8. How is soil pollution detected?
Often what leads to pollutants being detected is when construction or maintenance takes place on a contaminated site. With every construction project, soil samples are taken to ensure there is sufficient foundation to support the new structure and to identify potential health hazards.
Testing can be conducted by engaging a soils testing company for major construction projects or using a lab or on-site testing for small plots (e.g. gardens). For on-site testing, one of the most important tools for detecting soil pollution is the an XRF (X-ray fluorescence) gun, which determines heavy metal content. XRF guns, pictured below, can be rented for up to $4k a week or purchased for between $20k and $60k, a prohibitively expensive endeavor without an expert.
Your best bet for on-site testing in New Jersey and South Oregon is to contact the knowledgeable founder of Zoom Out Mycology (ZOM), Bashira Muhammad. Whether you’re a home gardener or managing a productive vineyard ZOM can determine fertility, organic matter, pH and mineral content as well as contaminants. For readers in other locations, you can mail a sample to the folks at Brooklyn College.
9. What are the remediation options?
Soil can be treated by physical remediation methods (like aeration and thermal desorption) and chemical methods (reagents, electricity or decomposition using high heat). (Procedia) However, bioremediation is arguably the most effective option.
Although it can be time-consuming compared to traditional methods, bioremediation is natural, less laborious and more affordable. At Zoom Out Mycology we treat soils on site using bioremediation, particulary mycoremediation, which utilizes fungi. To improve your soil, reach out to Bashira for more information about her methods and processes. A few examples of bioremediation are described below:
Mushrooms can be used to digest and disassemble organic pollutants, including hydrocarbons, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). (Discover Magazine) Although they are also able to absorb heavy metals, the elements cannot be broken down and become concentrated in the fungi.
Activated carbon is created by exposing materials with a high carbon content to extreme heat without burning them. Coal, wood, peat and coconut shells are transformed into a porous, highly adsorptive substance that binds easily with organic toxins, like dioxin, removing them from the soil. (Laboratory Equipment)
Hyperaccumulator plants consume heavy metals like arsenic, bronze, lead, zinc, cobalt and cadmium. The contaminants can then be recovered and used in industrial materials. (Hunker)
Soil that cannot be treated is contained within concrete or landfill caps. Although landfill capping does not treat soil immediately, it does utilize vegetation and organisms to break down residual waste. Over time, an area can be transformed for future generations. Pictured below is the south side of the Pelham Bay Landfill, which can be seen from City Island. It’s not a place I’m interested in visiting yet, but progress at the site is apparent for long-time residents and gives us hope for this project.
10. Even better, how can we prevent it?
Prevention is best and can be achieved on a large-scale or individual level.
Most states have enacted tougher legislation to discourage illegal dumping. If you are aware of any illegal activity you can report it to the EPA by following the steps on their website. (EPA) Although that may be effective, designing processes to minimize or eliminate toxic byproducts in the first place is ideal. In the meantime, innovative hazardous waste bins that are more indestructible are playing a role in improving containment now. (Hunker)
Another vital weapon against pollution is education. Teaching consumers the dangers of littering and mismanaging waste can help protect the environment and decrease the need for landfills.
For those of you with a green thumb who grow their own produce, sustainable practices are critical, since promoting healthy soil results in more nutritious crops. This can be achieved by planting nitrogen fixing cover crops, composting, utilizing crop and plot rotation, applying organic fertilizer, shortening the grazing season, and reducing cattle density.
For more modest growers, we can focus on using organic compost, keeping the surface moist and mulched, and choosing fruiting crops like tomatoes, squash, peas and corn. To safeguard against lead, hydrocarbon and heavy metal pollution, gardens should be situated away from old painted buildings and roadways.
After harvesting your produce, be sure to discard the outer leaves of lettuce and wash all vegetables before eating.
11. What is the impact of soil pollution?
As we push for sustainability in our communities with local farms and community and home gardens, it is crucial that we have safe soil to grow our produce. The heart of any garden or farm is its soil. Without having that foundation, we can’t locally source our own crops. If we import soil from another location to meet these needs, we’re not locally sustainable. Additionally, as we work to build and support local food systems, we are constantly facing roadblocks that prevent urban and suburban farms from flourishing.
China is familiar with the hardship caused by soil pollution. Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, disclosed that an estimated 12 million tons of grain are polluted each year by heavy metals in the soil. Economic losses exceed 20 billion yuan (about $2.5 billion). As much as 10 million hectares of arable land is contaminated. (Hunker)
A study released by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health stated, "nearly ninety-two per cent of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries and, in countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalized." (The Globe and Mail) This is a staggering statistic and not the first time this blog has addressed the unfair distribution environmental hazards. In a previous post contributor Luisa Black dedicated her article to outlining the 13 Ways Hurricanes Disproportionately Harm Communities of Color.
To pour salt on the wound, the consequences of soil pollution are felt again by the residents or business owners on a contaminated site. Since landowners are responsible for remediation, if they are unwilling or unable to address the issue, the problems is inherited by the next owner. This issue is reflected in the property value. Some sites, even in New York City, simply can’t be sold at a price that’s low enough to entice a buyer and high enough to convince the owner to part with their site. These abandoned, polluted properties devalue a neighborhood and hit communities a second time when business operations are halted, affecting employees and local commerce.
About the author:
Alyssa Leavy graduated from Lehigh University's bioengineering program with a concentration in pharmaceuticals in 2012. Since then she has pursued her passion for renewable fuels at a biodiesel plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In her free time she enjoys gardening in her NYC apartment, acting as sous chef to her fiance, and speaking entirely in Simpsons quotes.
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Zoom Out Mycology’s Environmental Awareness blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. Our team consists of a diverse group of scientists, policy experts, and engineers that help describe the science behind environmental issues that you see in the news and experience in your daily life. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle! If you are interested in being a guest contributor, please email us at: email@example.com