This paper reviews the evidence for impacts of metals on the growth of selected plants and on the effects of metals on soil microbial activity and soil fertility in the long-term. Less is known about adverse long-term effects of metals on soil microorganisms than on crop yields and metal uptake. This is not surprising, since the effects of metals added to soils in sewage sludge are difficult to assess, and few long-term experiments exist. Controlled field experiments with sewage sludges exist in the UK, Sweden, Germany and the USA and the data presented here are from these long-term field experiments only. Microbial activity and populations of cyanobacteria, Rhizobium leguminosarum bv. trifolii, mycorrhizae and the total microbial biomass have been adversely affected by metal concentrations which, in some cases, are below the European Community's maximum allowable concentration limits for metals in sludge-treated soils. For example, N2-fixation by free living heterotrophic bacteria was found to be inhibited at soil metal concentrations of (mg kg-1): 127 Zn, 37 Cu, 21 Ni, 3.4 Cd, 52 Cr and 71 Pb. N2-fixation by free-living cyanobacteria was reduced by 50% at metal concentrations of (mg kg-1): 114 Zn, 33 Cu, 17 Ni, 2.9 Cd, 80 Cr and 40 Pb. Rhizobium leguminosarum bv. trifolii numbers decreased by several orders of magnitude at soil metal concentrations of (mg kg-1): 130-200 Zn, 27-48 Cu, 11-15 Ni, and 0.8-1.0 Cd. Soil texture and pH were found to influence the concentrations at which toxicity occurred to both microorganisms and plants. Higher pH, and increased contents of clay and organic carbon reduced metal toxicity considerably. The evidence suggests that adverse effects on soil microbial parameters were generally found at surprizingly modest concentrations of metals in soils. It is concluded that prevention of adverse effects on soil microbial processes and ultimately soil fertility, should be a factor which influences soil protection legislation.