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11.10: Soil and Plants Related To Wastes and Pollutants

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    Soil is a repository of large quantities of wastes and pollutants, and plants act as filters to remove significant quantities of pollutants from the atmosphere. Sulfates and nitrates from the atmosphere, including acid-rain-causing H2SO4 and HNO3 deposit largely on the land and the plants growing on it. Gaseous atmospheric SO2, NO, and NO2 are absorbed by soil and oxidized to sulfates and nitrates. Soil bacteria and fungi are known to convert atmospheric CO to CO2. When leaded gasoline was widely used, soil along highways became contaminated with lead, and lead mines and smelters were significant sources of this toxic element. Organic materials, such as those involved in photochemical smog formation, are removed by contact with plants and are especially attracted by the waxy organic-like surfaces of the needles of pine trees.

    A number of materials that can be considered as pollutants are deliberately added to soil. The most obvious of these consists of insecticides and herbicides added to soil for pest and weed control. Chemicals from hazardous waste disposal sites can get onto soil or below the soil surface by leaching from landfill or drainage from waste lagoons. Some kinds of wastes, especially petroleum hydrocarbons, are disposed on soil where adsorption and microbial processes immobilize and degrade the wastes. Soil can be effective for the treatment of sewage. Leakage from underground storage tanks of organic liquids, such as gasoline and diesel fuel, have created major soil contamination problems.

    Soils in parts of New York State have been contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) discarded from the manufacture of industrial capacitors. Analyses of PCBs in United Kingdom soils archived for several decades have shown levels of these pollutants that parallel their production. Starting with very low levels around 1940 before PCBs were manufactured in large quantities, concentrations of PCBs increased markedly, peaking around 1970, when PCB manufacture was ceased. More recent soil samples have shown PCB concentrations near the pre-1940 levels. It is believed that these results reflect evaporation of PCBs and their condensation onto soil. They are consistent with observations of high PCB levels in remote Arctic and sub-Arctic regions believed to be due to the condensation of these compounds from the atmosphere onto soil in very cold regions.

    The degradation and eventual fates of the enormous quantities of herbicides and other pesticides applied to soil are very important in understanding the environmental effects of these substances. Many factors are involved in determining pesticide fate. One of the main ones of these is the degree of adsorption of pesticides to soil, strongly influenced by the nature and organic content of the soil surface as well as the solubility, volatility, charge, polarity, and molecular structure and size of the pesticides. Strongly adsorbed molecules are less likely to be released and thus harm organisms, but they are less biodegradable in the adsorbed form. The leaching of adsorbed pesticides into water is important in determining their water pollution potential. The effects and potential toxicities of pesticides to soil bacteria, fungi, and other organisms have to be considered. It must be kept in mind that pesticides may be converted to more toxic products by microbial action.

    This page titled 11.10: Soil and Plants Related To Wastes and Pollutants is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stanley E. Manahan.

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