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Earth Island News

Safe Food and Fertilizer

For five years, one small-town housewife-turned-mayor and four farmers – each suffering health problems caused by industrial wastes – worked diligently and cooperatively to unravel one of the fertilizer industries’ best kept secrets. The information gathered became the basis for the 1997 Seattle Times series “Fear in the Fields: How Hazardous Wastes Become Fertilizer.” Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the series chronicled how regulatory semantics (calling one’s waste a “product”) allowed industries to circumvent hazardous waste disposal laws by turning their wastes into fertilizer and animal feeds, with little or no oversight.

Wastes from steel mills, coal-fired power plants, aluminum manufacturers, mining operations, nuclear fuel processors, foundries, galvanizers, and other industries can make their way into fertilizers and soil amendments. But only a handful of states require disclosure of the presence of heavy metals in fertilizers, and sometimes that disclosure requirement is satisfied if the information is posted on the Internet. For those consumers that don’t carry a laptop while shopping, information on the Internet is of little use.

When you do search online for information about the composition of fertilizers, how do you make sense of the figures? Compare the levels of the heavy metals in all fertilizers, not just waste-derived fertilizers, against the treatment standards required for disposal in a regulated landfill. Under federal regulations, waste-derived fertilizers have to meet these treatment standards (unless your state adopts or has adopted the less stringent zinc fertilizer regulations finalized in 2002); if the fertilizers don’t meet these metal standards, they are essentially “dirtier” than materials accepted into landfills. Why would you want to put fertilizer on your backyard or home garden that isn’t even clean enough for a hazardous waste landfill? While landfill treatment standards for toxic metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, chromium, thallium, etc.) were designed to protect human health and the environment only when the wastes were disposed in the landfill, they are much more restrictive than the standards that the industry is pushing the states to adopt.

The AAPFCO (American Association of Plant Food Control Officials) toxic waste standards’ heavy metal levels are far from protective. Safe Food and Fertilizer does not advise the adoption of either the AAPFCO standards or the zinc fertilizer rule. Dissuade your state from adopting either of these standards, since neither of them is as protective as current requirements for disposal in a hazardous waste landfill. We do not endorse the use of landfill treatment standards. Landfill standards were not designed for fertilizers and do not predict crop uptake, air dispersion, or soil accumulation, and have not been found to be protective of human health or the environment when used for purposes other than landfills. We support a ban on use of any industrial wastes for which proof of safety, efficacy, and benefit have not been established.

Consumer preference can drive the market on waste-derived fertilizers. By purchasing the cleanest fertilizers available, consumers will force manufacturers to clean up their products. In order for this to occur, however, consumers must be educated. They must learn that fertilizers are not all benign, and that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are not the only ingredients in a bag of fertilizer.

Safe Food and Fertilizer (SFF) is dedicated to a ban on the use of hazardous and other industrial wastes in fertilizer, soil amendments, and animal feeds because of their potential impact on human health and the environment. For more detailed information on legally allowable levels of contaminants in fertilizer, see SFF’s Web site.


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