Soil & Water Testing
Learn the Basics
If you want to do your own testing, you need to know how testing works. Even if someone else does the testing, understanding testing helps you to be an effective “watchdog”. Start by reading Soil Quality: Digging in the Dirt for an overview of soil testing, or Water Quality: Read Before You Drink for an overview of water quality testing. Both guides describe how community members can be involved in the process.
For stories of communities who have faced similar problems, see the Spring 2011 issue of the educational magazine The Change Agent. Read:
Learn what contamination you might expect to see from the business in your area. See Industry Profiles and Info about Specific Polluted Sites Near You on SfA’s Public Data page to look up possible contaminants. You might be able to find other examples of this industry that later required a cleanup; find out which contaminants were found.
Once you’ve identified some possible contaminants, ATSDR’s ToxFAQs have simple profiles of many common contaminants. Ask the state environment department or the EPA to do some testing. Use what you’ve learned from the resources listed above to justify your request.
If that fails, you may need to commission your own testing. Try the activity Sampling Plans to practice thinking about where to sample.
Understand What the Data Says
Once you have data from soil or water quality tests:
- Look at the data with A First Look at Technical Documents to see what you can figure out on your own, and what questions remain. Pay particular attention to contaminants that are unique to the suspected polluter – chemicals that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
- Then familiarize yourself with any Common Units being used in the reports, especially micrograms, liters, and parts per million (and billion).
- Learn more about the Limits and Levels that may appear on data reports. For soil contamination: Soil Screening Levels. For drinking water: Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). For surface water (ponds, rivers, etc.) the NOAA publishes standards (SQuiRT TEL) for ecological health. You can find data with specific regulations on our Public Data page.
- See whether health-based standards are being exceeded, and by how much, using Compare to Standards. Then map the comparisons with Mapping Data.
The following videos may also be useful in deepening your understanding:
- What’s a Liter? Parts per Million in Water
- Milligrams per Kilogram: Parts per Million in Soil
- ND = Not Detected
- Soil Contamination and Gardening
- Sampling and Testing Contaminated Soil
- EcoAlert: Soil Contamination
- EcoAlert: Tap Water Quality
- EcoAlert: Community Water Contamination
Analyze the Data and Explore Strategies
If claims are being made about the data, and you think they are untrustworthy:
- Take A First Look at Challenging Claims to see whether or not the data supports those claims. Finding Newsworthy Data helps focus on the data of greatest concern.
- Some soil or water test results report results as averages over time, or averages from several samples mixed together. Use Inside Averages to think creatively about what might be behind an average. Watch the short video Averages Can Be Political.
- If you suspect the samples taken were inadequate, use Sampling Plans to critique a plan, or to suggest a new one.
If you are concerned that people’s health might be at risk from the contamination, Pieces of the Risk Puzzle reviews all the factors that contribute to risk.
If you believe there are already health problems in the community, and you want know if they’re related to the pollution, see Health Study Options.
Make Your Case
When you have the key facts you want to communicate to decision-makers or to the community, Communicating with Numbers helps you make your case effectively in words, images, and fact sheets.