Everything You Need to Know About Land Contamination

Unearth facts about contaminated land, including its causes, categories, and the numerous policies set to solve the problem and prevent further deterioration of the land.

ecologists in white suits conducting scientific examination of land resources

What is Land Contamination?

Experts believe that majority of the surface on the planet, including the ground underneath, has already been contaminated. The good news is that all countries have strict policies covering land contamination assessment, solutions, and preventive measures.

Land Contaminants

Some pollutants are relatively negligible in quality and quantity, but others pose life-threatening dangers. According to several land contamination reports, the following are the most common contaminants found in soil:

Agrochemicals – Used in agriculture, these include pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While considered by many as necessary in the industry, these can damage the soil’s biomass and its essential inhabitants. These toxic chemicals may cause cancers and mental health issues.

Asbestos – This substance is a must-have in construction because of its unique properties like insulation and heat resistance. Unfortunately, this causes untreatable diseases like mesothelioma, lung scarring, and cancer.

Heavy Metals – Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, copper, zinc, and nickel are all toxic byproducts of industrial activities, mining, and sewage irrigation. The rate of metal pollution in soil is incredibly alarming as these heavy metals seep into agricultural lands and clean water sources. Complications from exposure include various organ dysfunctions, cancer, and birth defects.

Petroleum Hydrocarbons (PHC) – This toxic pollutant is a byproduct of petroleum products like crude oil and natural gas. Aside from its health hazards to humans, it substantially changes the soil’s properties, making it prone to erosion.

Polynuclear or Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) – These substances are produced when organic materials (e.g., gas, coal, wood, and garbage) get burned. It is difficult to deal with because PAH is hydrophobic, ergo does not breakdown easily. Aside from its adverse effects to the ecosystem, PAHs are carcinogenic and mutagenic.

Solvents – Used primarily as cleaning agents in the manufacturing industry, these liquids vaporize at room temperature and causes a pollutant called ground level ozone. Skin irritation, fatigue and dizziness are just a few symptoms of short-term exposure. High doses, especially those resulting from leaks and spills, could lead to mental issues, unconsciousness, and even death.


Soil pollutants, as explained above, come from different industries. Carefully identifying these can make remediation and redevelopment more successful. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted some of the most extensive contaminated land assessment studies. They have come up with several categories based on their study.

  • Superfund National Priorities List – As the name implies, this is of highest priority because of serious contamination. Currently, there are over 1,300 Superfund sites in the country today.
  • Military Bases – The Department of Energy and Department of Defense have some of the most hazardous pollutants, from radioactive materials to unexploded ordinance. Because they own vast acres of land, the EPA has made a special category for them.
  • Abandoned or Inactive Mines – Some mines date back hundreds of years. These are usually not safely remediated after decommissioning.
  • Underground Storage Tanks – This includes business that store petroleum underground, such as gas stations and fleet service operators.
  • Accidental Spill Sites – Thousands of accidental spills, such as oil spills, occur annually, resulting in extensive damages and fatalities. One of the largest accidents reported was the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Its devastation is still detectable up to this day.
  • Facilities listed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – This refers to facilities with a history of improper waste disposal or accidental leakages of stored hazardous materials.
  • Brownfields – These refer to land properties slated for redevelopment with complications due to possible contamination because of its history as an industrial location.
  • Contaminated Sites Due to Natural Disasters or Terrorist Activities – Hurricanes, earthquakes, and bombings on industrial locations may cause spillage of hazardous waste.
  • Site-contamination by Radioactive Materials – This includes sites used for weapons production or nuclear testing.
  • Site-contamination by Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) – Because of its high toxicity level, the US has banned PCB production. Facilities that use or produce this highly poisonous and carcinogenic compound are subject to cleanup.

The clean-up and possible restoration of a particular area depends on these categories and the types of pollutants found during the land contamination survey.

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Regulations for Remediation and Redevelopment

Each country has its own regulations regarding soil pollution. These are based on the initial land contamination survey conducted and the legislative framework produced.

As mentioned above, the (EPA) is the United States’ regulatory body that deals with contaminated land based on the CERCLA or Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act. This statute covers remediation and redevelopment processes, preventive measures, enforcement of penalties and liabilities, and so many more.

Listed below are some of the countries with their corresponding regulatory bodies and legislative frameworks for the management of contaminated land:

  • Australia – New South Wales EPA – Guidelines depend on specific locations e.g., Contaminated Land Management Act of 1997 in New South Wales
  • Brazil – Ministry of Environment – Conselho Nacional do Meio Ambiente Resolution No, 420 of 2009
  • China – Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) – the country has several statues concerning land contamination starting with the Notice Regarding Environmental Security Protection for Site Redevelopment of Industrial Enterprises
  • England and Wales – Environment Agency – Environment Act of 1995
  • Germany – Federal Environment Agency – Bundes-Bodenschutzgesetz or the Federal Soil Protection Act
  • Japan – Ministry of Environmental Affairs – Law No. 32/2009 on Environmental Management
  • Mexico – Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources – Chapter VI of the General Law for the Prevention and Integral Management of Waste
  • Philippines – Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Clean Water Act and Pollution Control Law
  • South Africa – Department of Environmental Affairs – National Environmental Management Waste Act 59 of 2008
  • Russia – Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment – RF Law No.7-FZ of 2002

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Jona Tarlengco
Article by
Jona Tarlengco
Jona Tarlengco is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture since 2018. She usually writes about safety and quality topics, contributing to the creation of well-researched articles. Her 5-year experience in one of the world’s leading business news organisations helps enrich the quality of the information in her work.