Understanding the links between SOiL pollution and CancEr (SOLACE)

SOLACE is a  JRC Exploratory Research Project that will investigate potential relationship between the occurrence of specific cancers and levels of soil pollution. 

The Project aims to develop a methodology that moves from measures of concentrations of carcinogenic substances in soil towards the identification of hazards and risk analysis that may help explain eventual potential pathways that cause cancers (i.e. soil-plant-food, erosion by wind and water, etc.). 

The Project brings together a set of established competences and activities in the JRC in relation to health, soil and food security. These include the:

  • EU Soil Observatory (EUSO)
  • Knowledge Centre on Cancer European Cancer Information System (ECIS)
  • Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring (IPCHEM)
  • Digital Rural Landscape Laboratory  (DRLL)

The project has a duration of 24 months and will formally start during Q2 2021.


It is a recognised fact that many more people in Europe are now living with cancer as the result of an ageing population, unhealthy lifestyles, and unfavourable social, environmental and working conditions. This is generating a huge burden for citizens, cancer patients, survivors and their families, and for health systems and society at large. This challenge underpins the proposal for a Mission on Cancer under Horizon Europe, which aims to ensure that by 2030, more than 3 million lives will be saved from cancer. Among the main challenges identified for the mission are actions to understand risk factors and to prevent tumours from developing.

In parallel, a Horizon Europe Mission is also being developed on Soil Health and Food. Entitled “Caring for soil is caring for life”, the proposed mission aims to ensure that 75% of soils across the EU will be healthy by 2030 for food, people, nature and climate. In light of the background described above, it is clear that healthy soils must reflect less contaminants, and in particular, those that have an impact on human health with possible pathways through food. 

This aspiration is also mirrored by the European Green Deal, which is explicit in the need to reduce environmental degradation (such as pollution) and improve human health. The topics being tackled this Project are highlighted by the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the Farm to Fork Strategy and through the revision of the Soil Thematic Strategy under the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. Acknowledging the strong health impact from soil pollution (metals, pesticides, industrial emissions, waste), Sustainable Development Goal Target 3.9 makes an explicit reference to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from soil pollution and contamination. In this context, the effectiveness of EU policies and legislation that affect soil condition is paramount. Instruments such as the Sewage Sludge Directive, the Fertiliser Directive, the Minamata Convention and the NEC Directive, all aim to control the introduction of pollutants, especially metals, to soil. 

Of course, the main driver to the research is the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer or die from this disease. In 2020, the cancer burden in the EU-27 is estimated to have risen to 2.7 million new cases and 1.3 million deaths. Considering that Europe has a quarter of all cancer cases and less than 10 % of the world’s population, it is evident that cancer is a huge threat for Europe’s citizens and health systems. Projections show that the number of cancer cases in Europe will increase by 25% by 2035 even though survival rates of some cancer types have improved in recent years,. While lifestyle choices and cancer are relatively well understood, a clear message in the proposed Mission “Conquering cancer: mission possible” was that beating cancer requires a comprehensive approach to better understand the links between the environment and people’s health. A key intervention area to improve prevention is by reducing environmental risk factors, such as soil-crop-food pathways. This goal is fully in line with the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan

In this context, it is clear that links between polluted soils and food safety need to be explored. Understanding what crops are growing in potentially contaminated soils or even soils with naturally high levels of metals, and associated foodstuffs is a critical step to reduce environmental risk.


Soil pollution is a major land degradation process that is caused by the presence of chemicals in the natural soil environment that have been introduced as a result of human activities It should be noted that unlike other environmental media, soils are often directly targeted by polluting activities. Generally, these are typically caused by industrial processes (emissions to air and subsequent redeposition on to the soil surface), agricultural practices (e.g. fertilisers, pesticides) or the disposal of waste (e.g. sewage sludge, landfills). Finally, it is worth remembering that soils reflect the geological characteristics of their parent materials, which can result in naturally elevated levels of elements, often with health implications. 

The accumulation, transformation, and uptake of a range of pollutants in soil via the food chain is known to adversely affect human health. Exposure to heavy metals, such as arsenic, cadmium and lead are known to cause organ damage, affect cognitive ability and result in the development of tumours. There are similar concerns on a broad range of other chemicals that are persistent in soil, ranging from plant protection products to emissions of substances such as PFAS. The main pathways of soil pollutants into the food chain are through the ingestion of contaminated food (soil-plant-animal), inhalation of dust particles as a result of wind erosion, or by the movement of pollutants to aquifers and surface water bodies through leaching or erosion. 


The project will build on several activities in the JRC that have a high relevance to the issues described above. In summary, these are:

• JRC.D3 Unit undertakes the LUCAS Soil Survey – this is the only harmonised and regular assessment of soil characteristics for the EU, which is undertaken in conjunction with EUROSTAT and DGs AGRI, CLIMA, ENV and SANTE. Through this survey, more than 22,000 locations have been analysed for heavy metal content and currently a major exercise is ongoing to assess pesticide residues in soil

• JRC.F1 Unit operates the Cancer Information System that provides the latest information on indicators that quantify cancer burden across Europe. It permits the exploration of geographical patterns and temporal trends of incidence, mortality and survival data across Europe for the major cancer entities.

• JRC.F3 Unit manages IPCHEM - the Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring, the European Commission’s reference access point for chemical occurrence data collected and managed in Europe. The platform has been developed to fill the knowledge gap on chemical exposure and its burden on health and the environment with a focus on environmental monitoring, human bio-monitoring, and food and feed.

• Jrc.D5 Unit  has a recognised and long term experience in providing support to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on agricultural statistics through Earth Observation systems. It is currently developing novel data processing techniques that can provide detailed field-level information on crop type. 

  • In parallel, D3 is undertaking a pilot exercise with Member States to share agricultural management data that is collected through the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS) that controls payments to farmers under the CAP.

In this regards:

  • D3 will undertake an evaluation of soil metal levels from the 2009 and 2018 LUCAS Soil Survey to produce spatial assessments of the distribution of metal concentrations in soil. National pollution threshold levels will be extracted and applied to identify ‘hot spots’ of polluted soils for individual elements, eventually aggregated at NUTS2 or NUTS3 level. Attempts will be made to identify sources (i.e. natural background or anthropogenic). The analysis of critical zones will also consider relevant soil characteristics that affect the mobility of pollutants in soil (e.g. pH, texture, water balance, etc.) as well as susceptibility for uptake by crops.
  • Through the Cancer Information System, F1 will interrogate national or regional cancer registries to extract statistics on tumours generally associated with exposure to carcinogenic metals. Methods for the disaggregation of national incidences to regional assessments will be investigated. Statistical relationships (e.g. spatial correlations) between soil pollution incidence and tumour occurrences will be assessed. An overview of additional risk factors linked with the investigated tumour sites will be taken into account, as well as potential confounding variables such as socioeconomic information.
  • Through IPCHEM, F3 will investigate additional relevant data on soil pollution from national data sources. F3 will further support the assessment of health risks from multiple pollutants (mixtures) found in soil and in investigating the plausibility of associations between health effects and the detected chemicals considering mechanistic toxicity information.
  • D5 will apply novel data processing techniques to provide field-level information on crop type across the EU. Using frequent and high-resolution (10 m) Sentinel 1 and 2 observations in combination with in-situ data from LUCAS, algorithms have been developed to map crop type at parcel level across the EU. In combination with the increasingly open access to farmer’s crop declarations available in several MS, this parcel level crop type mapping is leading to unprecedented spatial information on where crops are grown. This information can be directly linked to the results of the LUCAS soil analysis to identify spatial associations of crops and heavy metals. 
  • In parallel, D3 will investigate the possibility to extract crop rotation data from pilot exercise with Member States to share agricultural management data that is collected through the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS) that controls payments to farmers under the CAP.


Please click here to download a presentation that summarises the project.

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