Monday, April 22, 2013

Fatal Fertilizer

The horrible tragedy in Texas last week has focused the nation's attention on some of the usually unrecognized problems associated with commercial fertilizers. There are good questions being asked about the wisdom of building houses, schools, and nursing homes near fertilizer companies. There are other important questions about commercial fertilizers that need to be asked, though, including the following.

Q:  How are modern fertilizers made?
A:  Most fertilizers are composed primarily of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These can come from various sources, including toxic industrial waste.

Q: How common is the practice of using industrial waste in fertilizer?
A:  The Washington Toxics Coalition reports that the practice is widespread. A report prepared by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) states that “more than six hundred companies from 44 states mix over 270 million pounds of hazardous waste with fertilizer as a cheap and unregulated means of disposal."

Q:  What kinds of waste products are used? 
A: An article first published in Catalyst magazine states that  "industrial and mining wastes — including plutonium, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, PCBs and dioxin — are taken from tailings, sumps, holding ponds, furnaces, and even captured from pollution control devices, and legally sold to fertilizer companies or spread directly on farmland."  

Q:  Is the waste treated first to remove the toxins?
A: A report entitled "Waste Lands: The Threat of Toxic Fertilizersays, "Unfortunately, the recycling of hazardous wastes into fertilizer products does not always include the process of treatment or cleaning of hazardous waste, but rather dilution of the waste. Dilution involves adding substances to a waste to reduce the concentration of toxic substances that are present in the waste. Dilution does not reduce the toxicity of the hazardous constituents."

Q:  What are the laws about using toxic waste for fertilizer?
A:  An international treaty known as the Basel Convention or the Basel Ban addresses "toxic colonialism."  It prevents developed countries like the United States from calling hazardous waste "fertilizer" and exporting it to poorer countries. Industrial waste is allowed to be used in the United States because of loopholes in hazardous waste disposal regulations. An individual quoted in a Seattle Times article discusses the loopholes. Referring to a toxic by-product of steel making, he says, "When it goes into our silo, it's a hazardous waste. When it comes out of the silo, it's no longer regulated. The exact same material. Don't ask me why. That's the wisdom of the EPA."

Loopholes also allow products to be sold without full ingredient disclosure. Labeling laws only require the beneficial nutrients to be listed. Contaminants, which the CHEJ report calls 'toxic stowaways," are not legally required to be included on the label.

Q: What contaminants may be present?
A: The Waste Lands publication reported on a study that tested 29 fertilizers for 22 toxic metals. They found that 20 fertilizers exceeded levels of concern for nine toxic heavy metals. All 29 fertilizers contained some level of each of the metals evaluated. The report notes that the metals are associated with cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

Q: What can people do to help combat the problem and reduce the health risks?
A: The obvious place to start is by choosing not to purchase and use chemical fertilizers on lawns and gardens. Those that advertise weed control as part of their benefit are especially important to avoid, because they generally contain pesticides. The website Eartheasy has a helpful page on natural lawn care, and natural and organic fertilizers can be bought many places, including Grow OrganicWe can also influence the use of toxic fertilizers on commercial crops by voting with our wallets. When we buy organic produce, we send the message that the issue is important to us.

The explosion in Texas was sobering and heartbreaking, but if it causes us to examine our use of chemical fertilizers, maybe we can salvage a bit of good from the tragedy.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Martha, for posting this article! Most people don't stop to think about what is in the products they buy and would be shocked to find out toxic substances are not even required to be listed on the label. Thanks for raising awareness on this issue!

Martha McLaughlin said...

I've been reading about this sort of thing long enough that you would think I couldn't be shocked anymore, but some of it still surprises me. While researching this post I came across a description of the process by which toxins from a Superfund site were used to fertilize wheat, some of which was turned into "specialty" baked goods. Yep, that's special. And yep, that surprised me.

DebraSY said...

You were the one who got me on the organic banana page, Martha. Now I get horribly frustrated at the news when some "health" reporter tells us we don't "need" to buy organic bananas because nutritionally they're the same and the pesticides do not reach the edible part of the fruit. That is NOT the only health issue at stake, and health reporters need to report that. I like to think I'm sending the message "Hey, banana farmers, no need to destroy your own health or poison the planet on my account. I'll pay an extra 30 cents." It may be my imagination, but I have sensed people in the grocery store looking at me condescendingly as I pick up the organic bananas, and they pick up the others. It's because of that generic health reporter and her incomplete news. Grrr.

Martha McLaughlin said...

Well said, Debra. I totally agree.