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Impact Areas: Assessment Perspectives

Soil Contamination and Human Health

Why are soil contaminants relevant for human health?

soil contaminants and human health
Interlinkages of soil contamination and human health (Perković et al., 2022)

Soils play a fundamental role for human health and well-being (Zhu et al., 2019). According to the concept of "One Health", both soils and humans are part of a symbiotic environment and thus interconnected and interdependent (Amuasi et al., 2020). The One Health concept is an integrated approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems by recognizing the links between them (OHHLEP, 2022).

Intensification of agricultural production systems has led to soil contamination in many places and, as a consequence, increased the exposure of humans to soil contaminants (Karimyan et al., 2020). Humans are exposed to these contaminants through inhalation, dermal contact, or the consumption of food. At the same time, soil contamination may also impact flora and fauna of affected and surrounding areas. This can pose a wider threat to the environment and could lead to additional, indirect consequences for human health.

What types of contaminants can be found in soils?

Some human-induced contaminants, such as heavy metals, are well-known and have been present in agricultural soils for a long time. Others, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria or micro(nano)plastics represent emerging and novel threats.


In the following sections, each of those contaminants and their interlinkages with soil health and human health is explored. 


Heavy Metals


Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Challenges in assessing the impacts of soil contamination on soil health and human health

Impact assessments are an important tool for identifying and minimiting human health risks arising from the accumulation of different soil contaminants. This is of particular importance with regard to measures reinforcing the concept of circular economy and nutrient cycling (e.g. sewage sludge as fertilizer) (Perković et al., 2022).

Since research on some of the contaminants has only emerged quite recently, there are still severe knowledge gaps which limit impact assessments. For example, little is known about the relative distribution of different contaminants in the soil, their combined effects, their pathways within the soil, and their long-term effect on soil health and human health.

In order to close these knowledge gaps, long-term field studies, standardized protocols of measurement and comprehensive monitoring systems are needed (Perković et al., 2022).



Amuasi J.H., Lucas, T., Horton R., Winkler, A.S. (2020) Reconnecting for our future: The Lancet One Health Commission. The Lancet, 395, 10235. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31027-8


Karimyan, K.; Alimohammadi, M.; Maleki, A.; Yunesian, M.; Nodehi, R.N.; Foroushani, A.R. (2020) Human health and ecological risk assessment of heavy metal(loid)s in agricultural soils of rural areas: A case study in Kurdistan Province, Iran. J. Environ. Health Sci. Eng., 18, 469–481.


One Health High-Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP), Adisasmito WB, Almuhairi S, Behravesh CB, Bilivogui P, Bukachi SA, et al. (2022) One Health: A new definition for a sustainable and healthy future. PLoS Pathog 18(6): e1010537. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1010537


Perković, S.; Paul, C.; Vasić, F.; Helming, K. (2022) Human Health and Soil Health Risks from Heavy Metals, Micro(nano)plastics, and Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria in Agricultural Soils. Agronomy, 12, 2945. https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy12122945


Zhu, Y.-G.; Zhao, Y.; Zhu, D.; Gillings, M.; Penuelas, J.; Ok, Y.S.; Capon, A.; Banwart, S. (2019) Soil biota, antimicrobial resistance and planetary health. In: Environ. Int., 131, 105059.