The Environmental Protection Agency establishes analytical test methods for constituents found naturally in the environment and others that are present through human activities. If you are concerned about the soil quality at your residence, you can submit samples to a laboratory for analysis. You can use the analyses to determine if you have a contamination problem or if your garden needs lime, sulphur or fertiliser for optimum plant growth.
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Volatile and Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds include a common list of soil contaminants that may occur in your lawn from sources such as fuels, oils, solvents and paints. The presence of certain VOC compounds, such as benzene, is detrimental to the health of your lawn and garden. A laboratory will analyse your soil samples for the volatile constituents using EPA Method 8260B and for semi-volatile constituents using EPA Method 8270C or EPA Method 8310. Depending on the equipment available, the laboratory may use equivalent analytical methods, which is permissible.
Laboratories can analyse soil samples for a myriad of different metals. The most common metals to find in soil due to contamination issues are mercury, lead, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, selenium, and silver. These metals may result from human introduction into the soil, such as a spill, but trace amounts are also likely to occur naturally. Metals naturally occur in different regions of the country in different concentrations. If you analyse your soil for metals and find detectable concentrations, ask the laboratory or your state's environmental bureau to help you determine if the concentrations are significant. The laboratory will analyse your metals samples using EPA Method 7421 for lead, EPA Method 7471A for mercury, EPA Method 7060A for arsenic, EPA Method 6010B for barium, EPA 7131A for cadmium, EPA Method 7191 for chromium, EPA Method 7740 for selenium, and EPA Method 7761 for silver. Equivalent analytical methods are acceptable.
Pesticides and Herbicides
Laboratory tests for pesticides and herbicides are useful if your home resides on land that was previously a farm or if you used significant amounts of these chemicals in your yard or garden in the past. A soil test will tell if you if there are elevated concentrations of these chemicals, which may have a negative impact on future plant growth. Laboratories typically use EPA Methods 614 for pesticides and EPA Method 615 for herbicides. Equivalent methods are acceptable.
Soil Nutrients and pH
Most garden plants grow well in soil with a neutral pH of around 7.0. A simple soil test in a laboratory will tell you the actual pH of the soil so that you can determine if you should amend the soil with sulphur or lime. The laboratory will analyse your soil samples for pH using EPA Method 150.1 or the equivalent.
Potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen are also important nutrients for garden plants. A soil test will reveal if your garden is deficient in these nutrients so that you can use a fertiliser to amend the soil, if necessary. Laboratory test methods for these constituents are EPA Method 258.1 for potassium, EPA Method 365.1 for phosphorous and EPA Method 350.1 for nitrogen. Equivalent test methods are acceptable.
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- Analytical Methodology for Groundwater and Soil Assessment Guidelines; South Carolina DHEC; August 2005
- "Environmental Analytical Chemistry"; Environmental Conservation Laboratories; June 2009
- Environmental Protection Agency: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- Environmental Protection Agency: Pesticides