Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: 108

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Consequently, the quality of food and hygienic conditions remain critical even in areas where the irrigation water wastewater appears safe. In metal contaminated soils, the change in the soil microbial diversity or shift from bacterial to fungal population has been reported [ ]. The long-term municipal wastewater application has been revealed to reduce the diversity of the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi [ ] and some types of wastewater such as olive mill wastewater have been reported to have an impact on the microbial community structure [ , ].

Wastewater irrigation in soil altered the ammonia-oxidizing bacterial population and the Nitrosomonas and Nitrosospira species became dominant [ ]. Wastewater use for irrigation may be the source of the beneficial bacteria for soils [ ]. Wastewater and soil both have quite different characteristics, but are inhabited by a wide diversity of the bacteria. For example, in N cycling, the bacteria involved with the ability to remediate soil contaminants for example, PTEs, antibiotics, or pesticides may contribute to the improvement of the soil quality [ , ].

The increase in the activity of some enzymes for example, laccases, hydrolytic, cellulases, phosphatase, proteolytic has been reported in the soils irrigated with the treated wastewater [ , , , , ]. This effect may be due to the provision of the organic carbon as suggested by the simultaneous increase in the activity of dehydrogenase, generally a parameter indicative of the biological oxidation of the organic compounds [ ]. The irrigation of soil with wastewater is expected to stimulate different metabolic pathways and organisms through the supply of nutrients and organic matter. It is, thus, suggested that the irrigation of wastewater may stimulate microorganism activity involved in the biochemical balance of the elements such as N, P, and C [ , ].

However, the stimulation of the soil microbial activity and the abundance may have negative effects on the soil properties. Wastewater irrigation leads to the PTE accumulation in soil. In some countries, the groundwater contains high concentrations of PTEs [ , , , , , ], which also results in high levels of these elements in wastewater. These PTEs have high environmental persistence due to their non-degradable nature and are readily accumulated in the soil to toxic levels [ 27 , , , ].

Wastewater irrigation is well-reported to cause the disproportionate accretion of PTEs in soils [ , ]. A linear relationship of the wastewater irrigation period with the buildup of PTEs in the soil has been found [ , ]. As a matter of fact, the long-term soil irrigation with wastewater can be responsible for the soil contamination by PTEs [ 22 , , ]. The heavy metal concentration in wastewater, soil, and plants in relation to the transfer and bioaccumulation factors.

Nowadays, the presence of PTEs in wastewater is abundant due to the excessive use of these elements in industrial activities and household articles [ , , , ]. Many studies worldwide have emphasized the risk of PTE accumulation in wastewater irrigated topsoil [ , , , ]. The levels of these PTEs in wastewater vary between regions and depend on the volume, source composition, and treatment of wastewater. Several past studies from developing and developed countries reported PTE accumulations in the soil as a result of wastewater application.

Abdu et al. Khan et al. Similarly, Khan et al. Several other studies also reported PTE build-ups in the soil in different areas around the globe. Despite the low levels of PTEs in most wastewaters, the soil may accumulate high levels of PTEs due to the continuous and long-term soil irrigation with untreated wastewater [ 4 ]. The long-term application of untreated and treated wastewater has resulted in significant increases of PTEs in the soil [ 19 , 92 , ] as well as groundwater leachate through dumpsites [ ]. Many studies conducted in Southeast Asian countries such as India, China, and Pakistan, where industrial effluent with sewage water untreated or diluted is widely used for irrigation found that Cd, followed by Pb, were the major metals which caused a risk to human health [ 4 , 21 , , ].

Generally, due to higher mobility, Cd is a major relevant PTEs presenting a risk to human health; additionally, because it is bioavailable to plants at very lower concentrations that are not phototoxic but cause health risks to humans [ ]. In peri-urban regions of Pakistan, vegetables and crops are frequently irrigated by wastewater without any primary treatment due to the non-availability of fresh water [ , , , , ].

In different areas of Lahore-Pakistan, the continuous use of wastewater for irrigation in the agricultural areas has caused a buildup of highly toxic metals compared to the soil irrigated by groundwater [ ].

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Amin et al. Generally, irrigation with wastewater elevates the total and available PTE concentrations in soils. Heavy metals introduced into the soil via wastewater irrigation accumulate primarily in the surface layer and are generally more mobile and bioavailable than those released from the parent rocks [ ]. Therefore, PTE addition to the soil by wastewater application may represent more threats to plant contamination than natural sources of PTE contaminations. The soil physico-chemical properties electrical conductivity, pH, soil mineralogy, cation exchange capacity, and biological and microbial conditions and the presence of soil organic and inorganic ligands greatly influence the mobile and bioavailable portion of PTEs in the soil [ , ].

In fact, all these soil properties and constituents control the basic physical, chemical, and biological processes that determine the fate and behavior of PTEs in soils [ , ]. The soil is the direct pathway for the contamination of plants by PTEs via root uptake. Vegetables and crops irrigated by wastewater take up high concentrations of PTEs which may cause health risks to the users Table 4 and Table 5. Several studies have demonstrated that wastewater irrigated plants may absorb and accumulate PTEs in concentrations greater than the maximum permissible limits MPLs with serious public health implications [ 4 , 73 , , ].

Kiziloglu et al. They reported that the irrigation of okra with PTE enriched wastewater is not safe for human use. High concentrations of Cr, Cd, Co, Pb, Cu, Zn, and Ni were reported in spinach, cabbage, radish, and forage grasses when grown on sewage sludge-amended soils [ , ]. Similarly, the wastewater-induced increased accumulation of PTEs by vegetables than the allowable level by EU standards has been reported in Harare-Zimbabwe [ ], Bejing-China [ 20 ], the industrial zone of Faisalabad-Pakistan [ ], Varanasi-India [ ], and Peshawar-Pakistan [ 70 ].

The soil-plant transfer of PTEs after the irrigation with wastewater depends on several factors relating to the soil, plant, and wastewater. Heavy metals may exist in soil in different forms such as free metal ion or complexed with various organic, inorganic, or soil constituents [ , ]. The soil-plant transfer of PTEs mainly depends on their chemical speciation [ , , ].

Generally, the PTEs added to soil via wastewater application anthropogenically accumulate mainly in the topsoil and are usually have higher mobility and bioavailability compared to those deposited from their parent material [ , ]. In fact, different soil physico-chemical properties control various soil physico-biochemical processes that govern the fate and behavior of the PTEs in the soils after being introduced by wastewater. For example, Mireles et al. Plant species have a diverse capacity for the accumulation and removal of PTEs from soil [ , , ].

Certain plant species generally termed as hyper-accumulators can accumulate high levels of PTEs after wastewater irrigation [ , , , ]. Overall, hyper-accumulator plant species have the potential to accumulate PTE contents that are — times higher compared to non-hyper-accumulating plants [ , , , , , ]. The edible parts of leafy vegetables grown under wastewater irrigation practice accumulate higher concentrations of PTEs than other vegetables [ 4 ].

Therefore, the soil-plant transfer of PTEs in wastewater irrigated soils also depends on the plant type being cultivated in that soil. After metal uptake, the compartmentation of PTEs in different plant parts root versus shoot or edible versus non-edible also varies with the plant and the metal type.

This sequestration of PTEs in the plant roots is due to the presence of endodermis or immobilization by negatively charged pectins within the cell wall Pourrut et al. The heavy metal uptake and accumulation in different plant parts play an important role in their health effects [ 24 , 26 , , , , ]. Depending on the type of the edible part of the vegetable, the increased metal accumulation in the roots and shoots can be useful or toxic.

For example, for leafy vegetables, the metal accumulation in the roots is useful, however, for tuber vegetables, a high translocation to its shoots is desired. The degree of the metal contamination also varies with the type of edible plant portion and its presence above or below ground. Generally, the risk of PTE contamination is higher for vegetables having consumable plant parts below the ground than those above the grounds. Inside the plants, the compartmentation of PTEs in different plant parts is generally controlled by different transporter proteins [ , , ].

Recent advancements in research at the cellular and genetic level have revealed numerous carrier proteins responsible for the root-shoot translocation of PTEs. The expression of these metal carrier proteins is cell and metal specific and they may carry out different roles in different plant species. Potentially toxic elements may accumulate at high levels in plants after wastewater irrigation. The excessive concentration of PTEs in plant tissue is capable of inducing various physiologically, morphologically, and biochemically toxic effects [ 18 ].

The heavy metals induce plant toxicity by disrupting the nutrient and water uptake and transport, altering the nitrogen metabolism, disrupting the activity of ATPase, reducing photosynthesis, interfering with plant growth, dysfunctioning the plant photosynthetic machinery in chloroplasts, and causing stomatal closure [ , , , ]. Heavy metals may also cause invisible symptoms of plant injury such as the browning of roots, necrosis, chlorosis, and leaf rolling [ , , ].

At the cellular level, excessive PTE exposure can cause the enhanced production of reactive oxygen species ROS , the alteration of cell cycles, and division and chromosomal aberrations [ 18 , , , ]. Heavy metals have also been reported to causes protein oxidation, lipid peroxidation, and genotoxicity, most probably via ROS overproduction [ , ].

Besides PTEs toxicity to plants, nowadays, food safety has become the most important public concern worldwide. The exposure of urban wastewater is multifaceted. Human health risks due to wastewater crop irrigation include the exposure of consumers and farmers to pathogens including the helminthes infections and inorganic and organic trace elements [ 4 ]. Direct exposure happens through the accidental inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact in different ways: while using wastewater for domestic activities for example, for dish cleaning or washing clothes , during working processes for example, while managing the wastewater treatment and emptying the onsite sanitation facilities or reusing the wastewater for irrigation purposes , during flooding actions caused by heavy rains; and due to recreational activities for example, bathing or swimming in lakes or rivers fed by the wastewater [ , , , ].

Wastewater is discharged commonly into water bodies with little and no treatment due to the limited availability of treatment facilities in many low-income countries [ 4 , 10 , 12 ]. The release of untreated municipal and industrial wastewater into water bodies oceans and seas is a reason for the rapidly growing deoxygenated dead zones. It is estimated that wastewater disposal of water bodies affects about , km 2 of marine ecosystems, as well as fisheries, livelihoods, and food chains [ ].

Recent international data indicate that wastewater- and sanitation-related diseases are pervasive and growing alarmingly in countries where untreated wastewater is commonly used for crop irrigation. About , deaths in in middle- and low-income countries were linked with sanitation services, contaminated drinking water, and inadequate hand-washing facilities WHO, b. These diseases were mainly reported among children under 5 years of age [ , ]. Indirect exposure occurs through the use of contaminated drinking water or wastewater-fed fish and crops [ ].

In the case of PTEs, humans can be exposed to these toxic compounds via several pathways such as dust inhalation, drinking contaminated water, or via atmospheric inhalation. Due to increasing the unchecked use of untreated wastewater for crop irrigation in many regions of the world, there is an increased risk of public exposure to the PTEs because of the consumption of food cultivated in sewage wastewater [ 21 , 60 ].

There are numerous studies in the literature supporting this assertion [ 4 , 20 , 21 , 28 , 76 , , , , , ]. Clinical studies have revealed that serious systemic health issues can develop as a result of extreme dietary PTE accumulation and are linked with the etiology of a number of diseases, especially nervous system, cardiovascular, blood, and kidney, as well as the bone diseases [ 25 , 31 , ].

The consumption of PTE contaminated vegetables can cause the depletion of nutrients in the human body that cause many problems in humans such as intrauterine growth retardation, disabilities with malnutrition, impaired psycho-social faculties, upper gastrointestinal cancer, and immunological defenses Iyengar and Nair, ; Wang et al. These PTEs for example, Pb and Cd are capable of inducing carcinogenesis, teratogenesis, and mutagenesis; high Pb and Cd concentrations in edible plant parts were attributed to the occurrence of upper gastrointestinal cancer [ 29 ].

Moreover, Pb is also reported to cause improper hemoglobin synthesis, renal and tumor infection, elevated blood pressure, and the dysfunctioning of the reproductive system [ , ]. PTEs are even capable of inducing toxic effects to living organisms, including human beings, at very low levels due to the absence of proper defense mechanisms to mitigate the toxic effects of these metals and to remove them from the body.

Therefore, much attention is given worldwide to food safety and risk assessment. Children and infants, in particular, are more vulnerable to wastewater contaminants [ ] and their exposure to these contaminants was referenced in several articles [ ]. Legislation regarding the use of wastewater for crop irrigation and associated health risks started in the early 19th century. During that period, wastewater use for crop irrigation in peri-urban fields induced catastrophic epidemics of numerous waterborne syndromes [ , , ].

In order to perform sanitary controls along the borders, the International Office of Public Hygiene was established [ ]. The issue of wastewater-borne diseases also led to the development of underground sewage systems in many cities around the globe in the early s [ ]. These guidelines were later further updated in and , keeping in view with epidemiological studies [ 38 , ].

The parameters such as health risk assessments have now been included in these updated guidelines. Estimating the level of exposure of PTEs and tracing their routes of contamination to the target organisms are critical for understanding the health risks involved [ 25 , ]. This is especially important in less developed countries, where the literacy and health risk awareness rates are very low. In low-income countries, many farm workers using wastewater for crop irrigation have been routinely exposed to poor hygiene conditions for most of their lives.

Several literature studies, especially in low-income countries, support this assertion [ 21 , 28 , 76 , , ]. Nowadays, there is an increasing trend in estimating the health risk using soil contamination indices, soil-plant transfer factors, and metal contents in edible plant parts [ 25 , 31 , , ]. The heavy metal soil contamination, soil-plant transfer, root-shoot translocation, and health risk assessment parameters used in different risk assessment and remediation studies.

The above-mentioned data show that wastewater crop irrigation has both positive and negative effects. However, by adopting and implementing some precautionary measures and practices, these negative effects of wastewater use can be minimized, making it a safe and reliable source of irrigation. The environmental protection laws and their proper implementation totally differ in developing and developed countries. Generally, the cities in developed countries have well-established and adopted environmentally friendly practices and environmentally sustainable approaches regarding wastewater disposal, treatment, and reuse in the agricultural sector.

However, the scenario is very much alarming in developing countries, especially in highly populated areas of the Indo-Pak Sub-continent. Therefore, there will be a need for more systematic approaches in industrial and agricultural sectors to tackle this environmental and health dilemma. Similarly, the treatment of industrial wastewater before its discharge is also a key prerequisite to effectively alleviate its negative environmental effects. The proper establishment of wastewater treatment techniques can address the growing demands both in terms of quantity and quality.

In the agricultural sector, the development of suitable irrigation approaches can be highly effective for its safe use.


It is well-established that environmental contamination can be greatly controlled using a proper irrigation method. Climate change has recently emerged as a key environmental challenge. The uncertainty of this anthropogenic-assisted natural phenomena and irregularity of the environment has to be faced and tacked properly. The scattered pattern of droughts and rainfall over the temporal scale will aggravate water shortages in some areas while flooding other areas. Under such conditions, there will be a need for appropriate techniques and wastewater disposal infrastructure to collect, recycle, and distribute wastewater, protect the soil, and optimize the management.

In areas arid, semi-arid where fresh water supply is short, the mixing of wastewater with ground or surface water can greatly dilute the PTE concentrations in the applied mixed irrigation water. In this way, the risk of PTEs accumulating in soil and crops, as well as the associated health hazards, can be minimized. In order to effectively manage this environmental and health issue, there is need to properly implement laws and regulations on wastewater discharge and use in the agricultural sector, especially in less developed countries.

The reports show that farmers in less developed countries do not pay enough attention to such laws and regulations, which results in environmental and health issue. Therefore, there is a need for strict regulatory systems, at the local, national, and international level, for effectively managing wastewater irrigation in the agricultural sector. Although abutment data are available regarding the wastewater use for crop irrigation, its effect both positive and negative on the soil, on plants, and on humans, there is limited data available with respect to the chemical speciation of the different contaminants especially PTEs in wastewater generated from different sectors at different time periods.

Similarly, the plant physiological responses overproduction of reactive oxygen species, lipid peroxidation and tolerance mechanisms activation of antioxidative enzymes, production of phytochelatins, glutathione, and so forth remain unexplored under the wastewater crop irrigation scenario. Consequently, the environmental and health risk of that contaminant can vary under these circumstances. Further research work is needed in this regard. Wastewater is used for crop irrigation as an alternative to freshwater.

Wastewater collection, disposal, and use in agriculture have a long history. Nowadays, it has become a common practice in many countries around the globe to use wastewater for irrigation. This practice of wastewater crop irrigation has mitigated water deficit crises, to a large extent, especially in arid and semi-arid areas of the world.

The nutritional value of wastewater has also been an attraction of its widespread use for crop irrigation. Simultaneously, untreated wastewater irrigation can provoke numerous environmental and human health issues. One of the main issues related to this practice is the build-up of heavy metals in soil, plants, food chains, and ultimately in human beings. When the environmental and human health issues related to wastewater crop irrigation are assessed globally, there exists a considerable difference between the developed and developing countries.

The collection, recycling, and reuse of wastewater in the agricultural sector is better adapted and operated in developed countries compared to the developing world. Social, economic, corporate, and legislative issues are hindering its proper use in the developing world. Keeping in view the rapid population growth and economic development as well as the uncertainty over climate change, the wastewater use in the agricultural sector may face many challenges.

Therefore, the wastewater collection, recycling, and reuse have good prospects in the future, especially in rapidly growing and heavily populated cities, arid and semi-arid areas, and in developing countries. Thus, strategies and techniques for water saving should be methodized on priority. Finally, further scientific research regarding the use of wastewater irrigation is needed for the more effective and sustainable development and adaptation of wastewater irrigation systems, especially in less developed areas.

National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Published online May 1. Find articles by Sana Khalid. Find articles by Muhammad Shahid. Find articles by Natasha. Find articles by Tania Sarwar. Find articles by Ali Haidar Shah. Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Received Mar 27; Accepted Apr This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Abstract Population densities and freshwater resources are not evenly distributed worldwide.

Keywords: wastewater, heavy metals, soil contamination, health risk, toxicity. Introduction Water is an essential component of life, but it is a susceptible and finite resource that has qualitative vulnerability and quantitative limitations. Open in a separate window. Figure 1. The Current Global Scenario of Wastewater Use for Crop Irrigation Nowadays, under freshwater scarce conditions, it becomes almost mandatory for farmers to consider and use any sources of water, especially in many arid and semi-arid regions [ 12 ].

Table 1 The wastewater production, collection, treatment, and reuse for crop irrigation in different countries in relation to the total agricultural area Source, Aquastat-FAO [ 9 ]. Figure 2. Figure 3. The possible food chain contamination by wastewater crop irrigation. Table 2 The effect of wastewater and freshwater on vegetable nutrients and heavy metal contents.

The Effect of Wastewater on the Physico-Chemical Properties of Soil Wastewater application changes some physicochemical properties of the irrigated soil. The Effect of Wastewater on Soil pH The soil pH is the master variable that controls the partitioning of metals between the solid and solution phases of soil.

The Effect of Wastewater on Soil Cations and Anions Irrigation water comprises of inorganic constituents; primarily, the dissolved nutrients Table 2 and salts, however, these salts vary greatly in both composition and concentration. The Effect of Wastewater on Soil Microbial Community The soil is a heterogeneous environment in both space and time and the microbial activity is focused at the localized sites on and around the organic residues.

Microbes Microbes Count Reference Coliforms 3. Table 4 The heavy metal concentration in wastewater, soil, and plants in relation to the transfer and bioaccumulation factors. Table 5 The health risk assessment for vegetables cultivated using wastewater. Health Risk Assessment after Food Chain Contamination by Wastewater Irrigation Estimating the level of exposure of PTEs and tracing their routes of contamination to the target organisms are critical for understanding the health risks involved [ 25 , ].

Table 6 The heavy metal soil contamination, soil-plant transfer, root-shoot translocation, and health risk assessment parameters used in different risk assessment and remediation studies. Future Perspectives The above-mentioned data show that wastewater crop irrigation has both positive and negative effects.

Conclusions Wastewater is used for crop irrigation as an alternative to freshwater. Author Contributions M. Conflicts of Interest The authors declare no conflict of interest. References 1. Rijsberman F. Water scarcity: Fact or fiction? Water Manag. Zhang Y. Wastewater irrigation: Past, present, and future. Wiley Interdiscip. Jaramillo M. Khalid S. Influence of groundwater and wastewater irrigation on lead accumulation in soil and vegetables: Implications for health risk assessment and phytoremediation.

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