Radioactive substances and soil contamination as causes of water pollution

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Three last forms of water pollution exist in the forms of petroleum, radioactive substances and heat. Petroleum often pollutes water bodies in the form of oil, resulting from oil spills. These large scale accidental discharges of petroleum are an important cause of pollution along shore lines. Besides the super tankers, off-shore drilling operations contribute a large share of pollution. One estimate is that one ton of oil is spilled for every million tons of oil transported. This is equal to about 0.0001%. Radioactive substances are produced in the form of waste from nuclear power plants and from the industrial, medical and scientific use of radioactive materials. Specific forms of waste are uranium and thorium mining and refining. The last form of water pollution is heat. Heat is a pollutant because increased temperatures result in the deaths of many aquatic organisms. These decreases in temperatures are caused when a discharge of cooling water by factories and power plants occurs.


Soil contamination is caused by the presence of man-made chemicals or other alteration in the natural soil environment. This type of contamination typically arises from the rupture of underground storage tanks, application of pesticides and percolation of contaminated surface water to subsurface strata, oil and fuel dumping, leaching of wastes from landfills or direct discharge of industrial wastes to the soil. The most common chemicals involved are petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, lead and other heavy metals. This occurrence of this phenomenon is correlated with the degree of industrialization and intensity of chemical usage.

The concern over soil contamination stems primarily from health risks, both of direct contact and from secondary contamination of water supplies. Mapping of contaminated soil sites and the resulting cleanup are time consuming and expensive tasks, requiring extensive amounts of geology, hydrology, chemistry and computer modeling skills.

Soil is a sort of ecosystem into itself and it is relatively sensitive to foreign matter being applied to it. That’s good for us in the case of wanting to add soil amendments, fertilizer and compost to make the soil healthier, but not so good when it comes to soil pollution.


There are many different ways that soil can become polluted, such as:

  • Seepage from a landfill
  • Discharge of industrial waste into the soil
  • Percolation of contaminated water into the soil
  • Rupture of underground storage tanks
  • Excess application of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer
  • Solid waste seepage

The most common chemicals involved in causing soil pollution are:

  • Petroleum hydrocarbons
  • Heavy metals
  • Pesticides
  • Solvents

Soil pollution happens when these chemicals adhere to the soil, either from being directly spilled onto the soil or through contact with soil that has already been contaminated. As the world becomes more industrialized, the long term effects of soil pollution are becoming more of a problem all over the world. It is thought that a full 150 million miles of China’s farmland is contaminated.



The major concern is that there are many sensitive land uses where people are in direct contact with soils such as residences, parks, schools and playgrounds. Other contact mechanisms include contamination of drinking water or inhalation of soil contaminants which have vaporized.

There is a very large set of health consequences from exposure to soil contamination depending on pollutant type, pathway of attack and vulnerability of the exposed population. Chromium and obsolete pesticide formulations are carcinogenic to populations. Lead is especially hazardous to young children, in which group there is a high risk of developmental damage to the brain, while to all populations kidney damage is a risk.

Chronic exposure to at sufficient concentrations is known to be associated with higher incidence of leukemia. Obsolete pesticides such as mercury and cyclodienes are known to induce higher incidences of kidney damage, some irreversible; cyclodienes are linked to liver toxicity. Organophosphates and carbamates can induce a chain of responses leading to neuromuscular blockage.

Many chlorinated solvents induced liver changes, kidney changes and depression of the central nervous system. There is an entire spectrum of further health effects such as headache, nausea, fatigue (physical), eye irritation and skin rash for the above cited and other chemicals.


Not unexpectedly, soil contaminants can have significant deleterious consequences for ecosystems. There are radical soil chemistry changes which can arise from the presence of many hazardous chemicals even at low concentrations of the contaminant species. These changes can manifest in the alteration of metabolism of endemic microorganisms and arthropods resident in a given soil environment. The result can be virtual eradication of some of the primary food chain, which in turn has major consequences for predator or consumer species. Even if the chemical effect on lower life forms a small, the lower pyramid levels of the food chain may ingest alien chemicals, which normally become more concentrated for each consuming rung of food chain. Many of these effects are now well known, such as the concentration of persistent DDT materials for avian consumers, leading to weakening of egg shells, increased chick mortality and potentially species extinction.

Effects occur to agricultural lands which have certain types of soil contamination. Contaminants typically alter plant metabolism, most commonly to reduce crop yields. This has a secondary effect upon soil conservation, since the languishing crops cannot shield the earth’s soil mantle from erosion phenomena. Some of these chemical contaminants have long half-lives and in other cases derivative chemicals are formed from decay of primary soil contaminants.


Radioactive contamination is the uncontrolled distribution of radioactive material in a given environment. The amount of radioactive material released in an accident is called the source term.


Radioactive contamination is typically a result of a spill or accident during the production or use of radionuclides (radioisotopes), an unstable nucleus which has excessive energy. Contamination may occur from radioactive gases, liquids or particles. For example, if a radionuclide used in nuclear medicine is accidently spilled, the material could be spread by people as they walk around. Radioactive contamination may also be an inevitable result of certain processes, such as the release of radioactive xenon in nuclear fuel reprocessing. In cases that radioactive material cannot be contained, it may be diluted to safe concentrations. Nuclear fallout distribution of radioactive contamination by a nuclear explosion. Containment is what differentiates radioactive material from radioactive contamination. Therefore, radioactive material in sealed and designated containers is not properly referred to as contamination, although the units of measurement might be the same.

Surface contamination is usually expressed in units of radioactivity per unit of area. For SI, this Becquerels per square meter (Bq/m2). Other units such as picocuries per 100 cm2 or disintegrations per minute per square centimeter (1 dpm/cm2=166 2/3 Bq/m2) may be used. Surface contamination may either be fixed or removable. In the case of fixed contamination, the radioactive material cannot by definition be spread, but it is still measurable.