Soil pollution and health

Page Last modified 08 Dec 2022
12 min read
This section of the zero pollution monitoring assessment presents available knowledge and trends on soil pollution and associated impacts on health, and assesses progress towards achieving relevant zero pollution targets and policy objectives.

Key messages

  • Hotspots for human exposure to soil pollution are contaminated sites, certain agricultural and urban soils, and land that has previously been flooded.
  • A large number of contaminated sites in Europe still have not been registered, characterised, monitored or remediated, thus posing significant risk to human health.
  • There is evidence that pollutants are accumulating in soil above critical thresholds set to protect soil health.


Figure 20. Summary analysis: soil pollution and health 


Guidance for interpreting the summary

The infographic above summarises the overall findings on soil pollution. Two dimensions are assessed:

  1. whether the recent trend in pollution is positive, negative or uncertain
  2. the current 'distance to target', based on an assessment of the current trends or status and whether or not the EU is on track to achieve the defined zero pollution targets for 2030 and/or other relevant policy targets.

The assessment is based on a combination of (1) available indicators and data, and (2) expert judgement.



Healthy soils are critical for supporting human health. They are essential for food, biomass and fibre production, the production of certain medicines, and retaining and filtering water. Healthy soils also play a key role in carbon and nutrient cycles. Soil pollution affects soil fertility; this jeopardises food security, which is essential for human survival. It also poses risks to human health — both indirectly through the consumption of contaminated food and drinking water, and directly through exposure to contaminated soil.

Soils can become polluted in various ways. For example, repeated pesticide application is a significant issue because it lowers soil biodiversity and resilience, and could lead to the contamination of food and feed. The zero pollution action plan sets targets of a 50% reduction in the use of chemical pesticides and the risks they pose, and a 50% reduction in the use of more hazardous pesticides by 2030 (for more information, see the zero pollution production and consumption section). Excess nutrients are another source of soil pollution. They lead to ecosystem eutrophication and reduced biodiversity, and result from fertiliser and manure application or from the deposition of certain air pollutants. The zero pollution action plan sets a target to reduce nutrient losses related to excessive nutrient application by at least 50% by 2030 (for more information, see the zero pollution analysis on nutrient losses). Another target which will promote healthier soils requires a reduction of 25% in the area of land impacted by air pollution; this target is assessed in the air and ecosystems section.

The EU soil strategy for 2030 reiterates the zero pollution target that, by 2050, soil pollution should be so low that it no longer harms human health (EC, 2021). The strategy prioritises preventing pollution at its source, which aligns with the zero pollution hierarchy. The soil strategy proposes a future soil health law; this is expected to include provisions on identifying, keeping an inventory of and remediating contaminated sites — significantly reducing risks as a result.


Soils support human health

Heathy soils provide nutritious food, clean drinking water, raw materials and carbon sequestration functions — ecosystem services that are essential for guaranteeing food security, tackling climate change and safeguarding human health (Montanarella and Panagos, 2021).

Soil pollution affects food security in two ways. First, soil pollution can reduce crop yields; this is because toxic pollutants degrade soils over the long term. Second, soil pollution can make foods unsuitable for human consumption (Rodríguez-Eugenio et al., 2018).

Human exposure to soil pollution is estimated to contribute to more than 500,000 premature deaths globally each year (Landrigan et al., 2018). Most of these deaths occur in vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly, affected by long-term exposure. Moreover, these deaths are related to exposure to only a limited range of pollutants; the impacts of all soil contaminants on health and well-being are likely to be greater.

Depending on the chemicals involved, soil pollutants can affect various organs, such as the lungs, skin, gut, liver and kidneys. These pollutants can also affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and more. Evidence suggests that the health impacts of soil pollution disproportionally affect poorer households; for example, poorer households have higher chances of living close to industrial sites and being exposed to contaminated soils (Morrens et al. 2012; Levasseur et al., 2021).

Human exposure to soil pollution

When spending time outdoors, people may be exposed to polluted soils through direct skin contact or by breathing in dust. In particular, children playing on the ground may consume or inhale polluted soil. Soils in urban areas, such as parks and home gardens, are a repository for contaminants (Li et al., 2018).

The degree of exposure is likely to depend on weather and soil conditions, as well as on the distance to sources of pollution. Sources include agricultural fields on which pesticides, fertilisers, wastewaters and sewage sludge may be applied; and industrial production, mining operation and waste management facilities, where hazardous materials may be used or stored — leading to emissions to air, water and soil.

People may also be indirectly exposed to soil pollutants through contaminated drinking or bathing water. They could also consume contaminated food grown in polluted soils, or products from animals fed contaminated feedstuffs. Further information on contaminants in food is available in the chemicals and health assessment.

Many of the emerging contaminants of concern in soils such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), phthalates and flame retardants are associated with significant health effects (Maddela et al., 2022).

Hotspots for human exposure to soil pollution are contaminated sites, certain agricultural and urban soils, and land that has previously been flooded. A German study monitored toxic pollutants in floodplain soils across the Elbe River in central Europe and assessed health risks (Rinklebe et al., 2019). The Elbe River and its tributaries are among the most highly polluted rivers in Europe due to a history of intensive industrial activity taking place over centuries. At the same time, these floodplain soils are highly fertile and often used for agriculture. Around the Central Elbe River, arsenic was found to be the primary contributor to total health risk — with chromium second, vanadium third and lead fourth. The study found that children’s health was at dramatically more risk than adults’.

High and increasing concentrations of cadmium have been found in agricultural topsoil across Europe; this mainly comes from phosphate fertilisers. Cadmium is a heavy metal; diet is the principal exposure route in non-smokers (smokers are routinely exposed to cadmium through cigarette smoke). It is linked to harmful health effects, including renal toxicity and osteoporosis (Ougier et al., 2021). The Mediterranean area, in particular, was found to be very sensitive to the accumulation of cadmium due to local soil properties which affect retention of metals in the soils (De Vries et al., 2022).

Under the HBM4EU project, human exposure to cadmium was assessed across nine European countries (HBM4EU, 2022a). The results of this study are presented in Figure 21, which shows the percentage of participants in each study in which levels above the guideline value were detected. The study identifies significant geographical variation with the highest exposure seen in France, Germany and Poland. Increased levels of cadmium were associated with people following a vegetarian diet, with 35% higher levels seen in vegetarians as opposed to non-vegetarians. The use of mineral phosphate fertiliser on agricultural land was also linked to dietary exposure to cadmium (Snoj Tratnik et al., 2022).

Figure 21. Percentage of participants (non-smoking adults, aged 20-39) with cadmium above guideline values across nine European countries, conducted between 2014 and 2020

Source: HBM4EU (2022b).

Soil pollution around industrial installations and contaminated sites

Most pollutants released into air or water from industrial emissions will end up in soils: a typical dispersion pathway is through surface run-off to streams and into soils, from which pollutants percolate through to groundwater.

One recent study investigated the health impacts on households living near three polluted mining and/or industrial sites in France, Portugal and Spain. The study found clear effects on health — including lower birthweights, lower health status among children, increased risk of chronic disease among adults and increased premature mortality. In terms of socio-economic costs, the study found higher rates of school absenteeism and higher demand for health services among residents from polluted areas, with poorer and less educated households being the most vulnerable to pollution (Levasseur et al., 2021). A second study examined the health impacts of 1,544 waste landfill sites on local populations across Europe. It estimated that a total loss of 61,325 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) annually was associated with health outcomes including low birthweight, congenital anomalies, respiratory diseases and annoyance from odour (Shaddick et al., 2018). A German study found higher levels of lead and cadmium in the blood of children living in the vicinity of metal refineries in North Rhine Westphalia than in children living elsewhere (Wilhelm et al., 2005).

Currently, it is estimated that 2.8 million potentially contaminated sites exist in the EU. A large proportion of these are legacy sites (so-called brownfield sites), often with unknown ownership (Payá Pérez and Rodríguez Eugenio, 2018). This estimate is considered conservative, and the number of potentially contaminated sites across the EU is likely to be underestimated — depending on which polluting activities are considered (EEA, 2022). The proportion of unregistered sites and sites that have not been risk assessed is large (more than 50%). Figure 22 shows that recent trends in the management of contaminated sites are positive; however, the levels of national action strongly differ across the EU. The high number of undetected/suspected contaminated sites poses a serious risk to citizens and the environment.

Figure 22. Progress in the management of contaminated sites in the EU, total number of recorded remediated sites.

Source: EEA (2022).

Click here for different chart formats and data

It is estimated that public and private expenditures allocated to contaminated soil issues amount to about EUR240 million per year (Ernst & Young, 2013). The total annual cost for contaminated site remediation was estimated at EUR119 billion.


Antimicrobials and antimicrobial resistance

Soil pollution can lead to the propagation of antimicrobial resistance genes, affecting health by increasing human resistance to antimicrobial pharmaceuticals. Antimicrobial resistance genes in soil microorganisms (resulting from irrigation with contaminated water, antibiotics in wastewater sludges spread on land and antibiotics in animal manures) have been observed and are rated as emerging contaminants, posing a potential human health risk worldwide (Rodríguez-Eugenio et al., 2018). The topic of AMR is addressed in more detail in the health and chemicals section of this assessment.

Figure 23. Indicator analysis — soil pollution and health

Note: Link to indicator: Progress in management of contaminated sites



Overview of indicator analysis methodology

This indicator analysis is in line with the approach taken by the EEA for its seventh environment action programme monitoring.

Past trends are based on assessment of the trend over the last 10 years (or since the relevant zero pollution baseline year where appropriate) with green, yellow or red being applied based on the criteria as outlined in the figure legend. Expert judgement is also applied, for example in cases where indicators are more qualitative and/or uncertain.

The distance to target is based on an assessment of the recent trend, current status and expert judgement. 

Further detailed analysis of the future outlook for meeting certain zero pollution targets is included in the zero pollution outlook 2022, completed by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC, 2022).



De Vries, W., et al., 2022, Impacts of nutrients and heavy metals in European agriculture — current and critical inputs in relation to air, soil and water quality, ETC-DI Report 2022/01, European Topic Centre on Data Integration and Digitalisation ( accessed 6 October 2022.

EC, 2021, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘EU soil strategy for 2030 — reaping the benefits of healthy soils for people, food, nature and climate’ (COM(2021) 699 final of 17 November 2021) ( accessed 9 October 2022.

EEA, 2022, ‘Progress in management of contaminated sites in Europe’, European Environment Agency ( accessed 5 December 2022.

Ernst and Young, 2013, Evaluation of expenditure and jobs for addressing soil contamination in Member States, ENV.B.1/ETU/2011/0012, European Commission Directorate-General Environment, Brussels ( accessed 6 October 2022.

HBM4EU, 2022a, Cadmium, HBM4EU Policy Brief, European Human Biomonitoring Initiative ( accessed 9 October 2022.

HBM4EU, 2022b, Policy implications of the indicators,Additional Deliverable Report AD5.6, WP5 — translation of results into policy, European Human Biomonitoring Initiative ( accessed 6 October 2022.

JRC, 2022, Zero pollution outlook 2022, JRC129655, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, Joint Research Centre ( accessed 1 December 2022.

Landrigan, P. J., et al., 2018, ‘The Lancet Commission on pollution and health’, The Lancet 391, pp. 462-512 (

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Li, G., et al., 2018, ‘Urban soil and human health: a review’, European Journal of Soil Science 69, pp. 196-215 (

Maddela, N. R., et al., 2022, ‘Major contaminants of emerging concern in soils: a perspective on potential health risks’, RSC Advances 12, pp. 12396-12415 (

Montanarella, L. and Panagos, P., 2021, ‘The relevance of sustainable soil management within the European Green Deal’, Land Use Policy 100, 104950 (

Morrens, B., et al., 2012, ‘Environmental justice under our skin? Socio-stratifying human biomonitoring results of adolescents living near an industrial hotspot in Flanders, Belgium’, in: Looking within: finding an environmental justice and global citizenship lens, Brill Publishing, Netherlands (

Montanarella, L. and Panagos, P., 2021, ‘The relevance of sustainable soil management within the European Green Deal’, Land Use Policy100, 104950 (

Ougier, E., et al., 2021, ‘Burden of osteoporosis and costs associated with human biomonitored cadmium exposure in three European countries: France, Spain and Belgium’, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 234, 113747 (

Payá Pérez, A. and Rodríguez Eugenio, N., 2018, Status of local soil contamination in Europe: revision of the indicator ‘Progress in the management contaminated sites in Europe’, JRC Technical Report JRC107508, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg (

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Rodríguez-Eugenio, N., et al., 2018, Soil pollution: a hidden reality, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome ( accessed 6 October 2022.

Shaddick, G., et al., 2018, ‘Towards an assessment of the health impact of industrially contaminated sites: waste landfills in Europe’, Epidemiologia & Prevenzione 42(5-6; Suppl. 1): pp. 69-75 (

Snoj Tratnik, J. et al., 2022, ‘Cadmium exposure in adults across Europe: Results from the HBM4EU Aligned Studies survey 2014–2020’, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 246, 114050, (

Wilhelm, M., et al., 2005, ‘Human biomonitoring of cadmium and lead exposure of child-mother pairs from Germany living in the vicinity of industrial sources (Hot Spot Study NRW)’, Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology19, pp. 83-90 (

Cover image source: © Evangelija Ivanoska, Well with Nature /EEA


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