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Ignore soil pollution at humanity’s peril

Date: 5 December 2018
Category: News, Press releases,2018

Soil pollution it is a major part of a wider problem that far exceeds the impact of climate change and must be taken far more seriously by the private and public sectors globally, according to one of the world’s foremost contamination scientists.

Professor Ravi Naidu, Chief Executive Officer of Australian contamination research agency CRC CARE, issued the challenge as part of his opening keynote address on Clean soils: humanity’s next great challenge at World Soil Day 2018 celebrations at the Korea Environment Industry & Technology Institute event in Seoul. 

The theme of World Soil Day 2018 (Wednesday 5 December) is ‘Be the solution to soil pollution’, in recognition of the dire state of much of the planet’s soils, one-third of which are already degraded – a sobering figure given that we depend upon soil for 95% of our food.

“Soil pollution is particularly insidious,” said Professor Naidu. “It harms us when we eat food grown in contaminated soil, it poisons water that flows into dams and catchments, and people working with soil – or children playing in it – can be exposed directly. 

“Contaminated soil also disrupts the ecosystem services – the benefits that humans freely gain from the natural environment, such as water supply, erosion control and food production – upon which we rely for our quality of life.”

Conversely, soils protect us by filtering out or locking up contaminants – but this capacity is finite and in many places contamination levels have exceeded the soil’s capacity to buffer humans from harm. Because soil holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, it is also plays a major role in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Most pollutants originate from human activities, such as unsustainable farming practices, industrial activities and mining, and untreated urban waste. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises soil’s vital role in our wellbeing, with four of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals containing targets that directly consider soil resources, especially soil pollution and degradation in relation to food security.

Although humanity’s expanding footprint is making soil pollution worse, there is cause for optimism. “Researchers worldwide are developing innovative, clever technologies that prevent or clean up contamination better than ever before,” said Professor Naidu. 

For example, CRC CARE, in partnership with the University of Newcastle’s Global Centre for Environmental Remediation, is harnessing the natural properties of certain microbes to clean up hydrocarbon-contaminated soils at mine sites (a process known and bioremediation) and developing rapid, real-time on-site sensors for detecting and analysing soil contamination. A project to remediate acid sulfate soils dramatically restored the health of wetlands near Cairns, Queensland, and has been hailed as a model for similarly afflicted sites globally.

“We must also place soil pollution in the context of chemical contamination of our environment more generally, including air and water,” said Professor Naidu. “In its scale and global implications, it is the most underrated, under-investigated and poorly understood of all the essential risks facing humans in the 21st Century.”

An estimated 5 million potentially contaminated sites threaten the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people and ecosystems globally. The European Chemicals Agency lists more than 144,000 registered chemicals, with the number growing by about 2,000 every year.

“Globally, less than 10 per cent of contaminated sites have been cleaned up,” said Professor Naidu. “It will not be long before the clean-up bill for the United States alone will be more than a trillion dollars.”
According to recent World Health Organization reports, 1 in 12 human deaths are linked to exposure to unsafe environments globally, with air pollution linked to 7 million deaths and another 5 million linked to chemical exposure. 

“This compares with just over 2 million deaths from cancer, 1 million from diabetes, and 1 million from HIV/AIDS, said Professor Naidu. “I estimate that the impact of chemical contamination upon Earth is five times as large as that of climate change. Humans are the cause of this problem, and humanity must work together to solve it before it is too late.”

CRC CARE (Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment) brings together industry, government, science and engineering to prevent, assess and clean up environmental contamination. It is supported by the Australian Government’s CRC Program and 29 research, industry and government partner organisations.

Media enquiries: Adam Barclay, CRC CARE Communication Manager – 0429 779 228; adam.barclay@crccare.com