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The industrialisation of the planet has left more than a growth in technology. It has left, and continues to cause, environmentally damaging legacies. It is estimated that only 10% of the world’s five million (approximately) polluted sites have been cleaned up in the last five decades having been pummeled by the toxic by-products of our progress.
The polluters are varied: there are large scale impacts from mining, for example; and the use of pesticides and herbicides in mass farming along with irrigation using untreated wastewater. Newer forms of ‘emerging pollutants’ come from the pharmaceutical industry. There’s e-waste from old electronics, bio-pollutants like hormones and endocrine disruptors, and don’t forget microplastics, finding its way into the soil, animal feed, and fertiliser. All of which add a new dimension to the threat. There are even residues from radioactivity. In the Northern hemisphere there are higher concentrations of radionuclides than anywhere else, caused by nuclear testing or leaks.
Apart from water, soil is the source of virtually everything that we need to stay alive on this planet. If it is compromised, water tables become polluted, crops cannot thrive, animals and insect life are poisoned, and in the end, so are we. Tackling soil pollution has been tabled by scientists and environmental advocates as a top priority for the continued survival of our planet - even on a par with climate change. A report released in 2018 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation outlines the main threats to soil health and key pollutants. It recommends the absolute need for global soil remediation, and more stringent legislation against pollution threats.
Our industrial sites have been contaminated by decades of manufacturing, processing and refining. Chemicals and heavy metals have leached into the soil in large quantities. The contaminants left behind from industrial activity include heavy metals, such as cadmium, chromium, copper, lead and zinc. When present in large concentrations, these materials prove hazardous to health as they infiltrate the food chain, through the soil and into the natural water systems.
Left untreated this will have a lasting impact on future generations, the environment and the economy. It’s already beginning to appear with startling detrimental effects around the world. In Bengal, a groundbreaking exposé estimated that around 10 million people have been consuming arsenic tainted groundwater for years. In reality, approximately 137 million people are likely to have been affected across 70 countries. Currently in 2020, Hawaiian farmers are expressing concern about the amount of plastics being found in fertiliser and the soil. In Samut Sakhon in Thailand, what was once a thriving local, seaside economy, is under threat to pollution, in both the sediment and the water, from nearby industrial activities.
New technological developments mean that there is a solution in sight to more efficiently clean our contaminated soils. This, coupled with more rigorous global regulatory and legislative action to prevent pollution, provides us with a light at the end of the tunnel – even though it may be a long way off. Through a refined scientific approach to scrubbing and recovering the soil contaminants with a more rugged approach for the hard rock, our beleaguered soil has a chance at a second life.
Previously it has been necessary to use chemicals, such as surfactants, as part of the clean-up process. However now, we can remove hydrocarbons from the surface of the contaminants, isolate and remove them from the washing water afterwards without using chemicals. Using the new screening, scrubbing and sorting systems, the treated material can be returned to the previously contaminated site, or it can be recycled and used elsewhere. There is even scope for re-use as aggregate, and organic material and water can be re-couped.
Before it becomes unsolvable, we need to apply our laws and technological advances to save a primary resource of this planet. The soil feeds and nourishes us, the animals, and shelters our natural sources of clean water. If we pollute it, we are limiting our own wellbeing. We must act now to save the earth.