This activity helps to get started with investigating your soil. Learning about past and current activities on and near your land can help identify pollutants that might be present. Having an idea of potential soil contaminants can then help you in planning for eventual soil testing, where narrowing down the list of possible contaminants will reduce testing costs. This activity breaks out and builds upon an early step identified in "Things to consider when testing soil for contaminants," by @DanielleS!
This first step of researching the site is recommended by several soil sampling guides (like this Statistics for Action Soil Quality Guide) and Public Lab community members. You might also see this research described as finding out the "land use history," but this activity also encourages researching current activities and industries on or near the site.
- A computer/tablet with a connection to the internet
- Access to public libraries or town archives for records that aren't online
- A way to record your findings: a list or even a map!
Here are some things you can do to get more information about your land:
1. Make observations on your land
This factsheet on Sources and Impacts of Contaminants in Soils from the Cornell Waste Management Institute has lots of great guiding questions in the section entitled, "What are Some Common Sources of Soil Contaminants?" Some examples:
- Were any buildings on the site built before the 1970s and therefore might have lead paint on the exterior?
- Are there old fences or decks built with pressure-treated wood that contain arsenic that could have travelled into nearby soil?
- Is there a high-traffic roadway nearby that could have contributed to lead in the soil when leaded gasoline was widely used?
2. Talk to other people in your neighborhood
Ask them about past and present residential or industrial activities nearby.
- Was a former resident readily applying pesticides in their garden? In the US Pacific Northwest, for example, many residential lots were formerly small orchards and could have pesticide residues in the soil.
- Was there a formerly-active cement factory nearby whose emissions could have landed as dust on your land?
3. Find publicly available land use records from local / municipal sources
- From your town or city hall or county
- Some cities allow you to access land parcel reports online, which often list the land use category (e.g., residential or a specific industry). You could review the report for the parcel containing your site and neighboring ones.
- For example, the city of Bellingham in WA, US, has an interactive online mapping tool called CityIQ that enables you to select an area on a map and see reports for parcels within that area. I selected a parcel on what I know to be an industrial waterfront area, and learned it's a Model Toxic Control Act site (a site containing hazardous substances).
Example land parcel report for a garbage collection and recycling service facility
- From local public libraries
- Another example from Bellingham, WA, where the local public library has compiled a list of resources for researching the history of your home and neighborhood. I found this by browsing the library website, but you could also call the library and talk to someone who could direct you to their resources.
4. Search regional and national databases
Examples from the US:
- Bureau of Land Management online record search
- Envirofacts search tool from the EPA: you can search multiple EPA databases at once by address or zip code. The search will produce a map and list of facilities that are regulated by the EPA and have to report to the agency. Click on any facility to view its report, which lists "Supplemental Environmental Interests" about hazardous waste or toxics.
Example list of environmental programs, permits, and notices on a facility report from Envirofacts
- You can also search EPA databases specific to "Land" by location or zip code, and find information on hazardous waste and clean up sites.
The Envirofacts homepage. Search via the search bar on the left or by topic. Land, Waste, and Toxics might be particularly useful in your land use research.
By the end of this activity, you hopefully have an idea of potential sources of contaminants in your soil and have recorded them down. Maybe you've already started to identify possible contaminants that could have come from these sources.
Follow up activities
- Research what contaminants are commonly associated with the land's past and current uses. This is Step 2 in "Things to consider when testing soil for contaminants"
- If you haven't already, try mapping these potential sources and any likely contaminants you've identified! You don't need a fancy map, something you draw or print out and draw on would work to help you keep track of potential pollutant sources and eventually develop a soil testing plan. Here are a couple mapping activities to try:
References and additional resources
- Cornell Waste Management Institute: Sources and Impacts of Contaminants in Soils: the resources list at the bottom of this factsheet contains more resources.
If you have any ideas or tips to add to this activity, please comment below!