Pollution: Non-Point Source


Non-point source pollution (NPSP) has no obvious single point source discharge and is of diffuse nature (Table 1). An example of NPSP includes aerial transport and deposition of contaminants such as S02 from industrial emissions leading to acidification of soil and water bodies. Rain water in urban areas could also be a source of NPSP as it may concentrate organic and inorganic contaminants. Examples of such contaminants include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls that could be present in urban air due to road traffic, domestic heating, industrial emissions, agricultural treatments, etc.11'31 Other examples of NPSP include fertilizer (especially Cd, N, and P) and pesticide applications to improve crop yield. Use of industrial waste materials as soil amendments have been estimated to contaminate thousands of hectares of productive agricultural land in countries throughout the world.

Contaminant Interactions

Non-point pollution is generally associated with low-level contamination spread at broad acre level. Under these circumstances, the major reaction controlling contaminant interactions are sorption- desorption processes, plant uptake, surface runoff, and leaching. However, certain contaminants, in particular, organic compounds are also subjected to voltalization, chemical, and biological degradation. Sorption-desorption and degradation (both biotic and abiotic) are the two most important processes controlling organic contaminant behavior in soils. These processes are influenced by both soil and solution properties of the environment. Such interactions also determine the bioavailability and/or transport of contaminants in soils. Where the contaminants are bioavailable, risk to surface and groundwater and soil, crop, and human health are enhanced.

TABLE 1 Industries, Land Uses, and Associated Chemicals Contributing to Non-Point Source Pollution


Type of Chemical

Associated Chemicals

Agricultural activities


Cadmium, mercury, arsenic, selenium


Nitrate, phosphate, borate


Sodium, chloride, sulfate, magnesium, alkalinity


Range of organic and inorganic pesticides including arsenic, copper, zinc, lead, sulfonylureas, organochlorine, organophosphates, etc., salt, geogenic contaminants (e.g., arsenic, selenium, etc.)


Sodium, chloride, arsenic, selenium

Automobile and industrial emissions


Lead, arsenic, copper, cadmium, zinc, etc.


Sulfur oxides, carbon oxides


Lead and lead organic compounds



Polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorbiphenyls, etc.


Sulfur oxides, carbon oxides acidity, metals and metalloids

Source: (From Barzi, F.; Naidu, R.; McLaughlin, M.J. Contaminants and the Australian Soil Environment. In Contaminants and the Soil Environment in the Australasia-Pacific Region; Naidu, R., Kookana, R.S., Oliver, D., Rogers, S., McLaughlin, M.J., Eds.; Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, the Netherlands, 1996; 451-484.)

Implications to Soil and Environmental Quality

Environmental contaminants can have a deleterious effect on non-target organisms and their beneficial activities. These effects could include a decline in primary production, decreased rate of organic matter break-down, and nutrient cycling as well as mineralization of harmful substances that in turn cause a loss of productivity of the ecosystems. Certain pollutants, even though present in very small concentrations in the soil and surrounding water, have potential to be taken up by various micro-organisms, plants, animals, and ultimately human beings. These pollutants may accumulate and concentrate in the food chain by several thousand times through a process referred to as biomagnification.

Urban sewage, because of its nutrient values and source of organic carbon in soils, is now increasingly being disposed to land. The contaminants present in sewage sludge (nutrients, heavy metals, organic compounds, and pathogens), if not managed properly, could potentially affect the environment adversely. Dumping of radioactive waste (e.g., radium, uranium, plutonium) onto soil is more complicated because these materials remain active for thousands of years in the soil and thus pose a continued threat to the future health of the ecosystem.

Industrial wastes, improper agricultural techniques, municipal wastes, and use of saline water for irrigation under high evaporative conditions result in the presence of excess soluble salts (predominantly Na and Cl ions) and metalloids such as Se and As in soils. Salinity and sodicity affect the vegetation by inhibiting seed germination, decreasing permeability of roots to water, and disrupting their functions such as photosynthesis, respiration, and synthesis of proteins and enzymes.

Some of the impacts of soil pollution migrate a long way from the source and can persist for some time. For example, suspended solids can increase water turbidity in streams, affecting benthic and pelagic aquatic ecosystems, filling reservoirs with unwanted silt, and requiring water treatment systems for potable water supplies. Phosphorus attached to soil particles, which are washed from a paddock into a stream, can dominate nutrient loads in streams and down-stream water bodies. Consequences include increases in algal biomass, reduced oxygen concentrations, impaired habitat for aquatic species, and even possible production of cyanobacterial toxins, with series impacts for humans and livestock consuming the water. Where waters discharge into estuaries, N can be the limiting factor for eutrophication; estuaries of some catchments where fertilizer use is extensive have suffered from excessive sea grass and algal growth.

More insidious is the leaching of nutrients, agricultural chemicals, and hydrocarbons to ground- water. Incremental increases in concentrations in groundwater may be observed over long periods of time resulting in initially potable water becoming undrinkable and then some of the highest valued uses of the resource may be lost for decades. This problem is most severe on tropical islands with shallow relief and some deltaic arsenopyrite deposits, where wells cannot be deepened to avoid polluted ground- water because underlying groundwater is either saline or contains too much As.

Sampling for Non-Point Source Pollution

The sampling requirements of NPSP are quite different from those of the point source contamination. Typically, the sampling is required to give a good estimate of the mean level of pollution rather than to delineate areas of pollution. In such a situation, sampling is typically carried out on a regular square or a triangular grid. Furthermore, gains may be possible by using composite sampling.141 However, if the pollution is patchy, other strategies may be used. One such strategy is to divide the area into remediation units, and to sample each of these. The possibility of movement of the pollutant from the soil to some receptor (or asset) is assessed, and the potential harm is quantified. This process requires an analysis of the bioavailability of the pollutant, pathway analysis, and the toxicological risk. The risk analysis is then assessed and decisions are then made as to how the risk should be managed.

Management and/or Remediation of Non-Point Source Pollution

The treatment strategies used for managing NPSP are generally those that modify the soil properties to decrease the bioavailable contaminant fraction. This is particularly so in the rural agricultural environment where soil-plant transfer of contaminants is of greatest concern. Soil amendments commonly used include those that change the ion-exchange characteristics of the colloid particles and those that enhance the ability of soils to sorb contaminants. An example of NPSP management includes the application of lime to immobilize metals because the solubility of most heavy metals decreases with increasing soil pH. However, this approach is not applicable to all metals, especially those that form oxyanions—the bioavailability of such species increases with increasing pH. Therefore, one of the prerequisites for remediating contaminated sites is a detailed assessment of the nature of contaminants present in the soil. The application of a modified aluminosilicate to a highly contaminated soil around a zinc smelter in Belgium was shown to reduce the bioavailability of metals thereby reducing the Zn phytotoxicity.151 The simple addition of rock phosphates to form Pb phosphate has also been demonstrated to reduce the bioavailability of Pb in aqueous solutions and contaminated soils due to immobilization in the metal.161 Nevertheless, there is concern over the long-term stability of the processes. The immobilization process appears attractive currently given that there are very few cheap and effective in situ remediation techniques for metal-contaminated soils. A novel, innovative approach is using higher plants to stabilize, extract, degrade, or volatilize inorganic and organic contaminants for in situ treatment (cleanup or containment) of polluted top soils.17!

Preventing Water Pollution

The key to preventing water pollution from the soil zone is to manage the source of pollution. For example, nitrate pollution of groundwater will always occur if there is excess nitrate in the soil at a time when there is excess water leaching through the soil. This suggests that we should aim to reduce the nitrogen in the soil during wet seasons and the drainage through the soil. Local research may be needed to demonstrate the success of best management techniques in reducing nutrient, sediment, metal, and chemical exports via surface runoff and infiltration to groundwater. Production figures from the same experiments may also convince local farmers of the benefits of maintaining nutrients and chemicals where needed by a crop rather than losing them off site, and facilitate uptake of best management practices.

Global Challenges and Responsibility

The biosphere is a life-supporting system to the living organisms. Each species in this system has a role to play and thus every species is important and biological diversity is vital for ecosystem health and functioning. The detection of hazardous compounds in Antarctica, where these compounds were never used or no man has ever lived before, indicates how serious is the problem of long-range atmospheric transport and deposition of these pollutants. Clearly, pollution knows no boundaries. This ubiquitous pollution has had a global effect on our soils, which in turn has been affecting their biological health and productivity. Coupled with this, over 100,000 chemicals are being used in countries throughout the world. Recent focus has been on the endocrine disruptor chemicals that mimic natural hormones and do great harm to animal and human reproductive cycles.

These pollutants are only a few examples of contaminants that are found in the terrestrial environment.


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