Soils and Health

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Did you know there are many ways in which soils can affect our health both in good ways and in ways not so good? Soils vary a great deal in their natural mineral and organic composition. Some soils can contain large amounts of particular elements (like lead and selenium), which if taken in by humans and animals can cause medical and physical problems. The solid rocks underneath some soils can contain naturally large quantities of potentially harmful chemicals and these will pass into soils that have developed from these rocks. As well as soils with too much of some elements, some soils don't have enough elements that are essential to human and animal health. This can also lead to problems. These elements come into our bodies in three main ways. First of all we can eat them in our food. For an example a carrot or an apple that you eat contains nutrients and elements from the soil it grew in. Have you heard the expression 'you are what you eat'! You may not even realise you are eating soil - but now you know why you should clean your hands before eating after playing in the garden! Secondly we can also breathe in soil as fine dust which gets into our lungs and bodies. Some dusts like Asbestos can cause real health problems. Thirdly soil particles can get into our body through cuts and scratches. If you have ever fallen and grazed your knee you will know how you should always clean your wound to remove any nasty soil bacteria (like Tetanus) or viruses.

It is true that natural problems in the soil are relatively rare; much more common are problems where human activity has led to polluted or contaminated soils. In Britain, human pollution of soils can be linked to industries such as mining for metals. Much pollution and contamination occurred during the development of industry from the 1800s onwards, although there are still soils today contaminated from Roman times. In other parts of the world soils can become contaminated when drinking and irrigation waters containing pollutants are pumped up to the surface. For instance arsenic in drinking water is now causing real problems in Bangladesh.

Soils have become polluted and contaminated through the industrial use of land and this has led to incidences of damage to the soil. This in turn can affect our health. To try to limit the effects of pollution, government bodies are set up to encourage and enforce greater awareness of these problems and the clean up of polluted contaminated land. In the UK, this is the responsibility of the Environment Agency.

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