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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Fertilizer

Air Date: Week of

A new alarm is being sounded about some of the chemicals used to grow America's food. Toxic industrial waste is routinely used to make fertilizer. It's been happening for decades, but only now is coming to light after complaints by farmers in Quincy, Washington. Their allegations have prompted a nationwide effort to examine the safety of fertilizer derived from waste. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.


CURWOOD: A new alarm is being sounded about some of the chemicals used to grow America's food. Toxic industrial waste is routinely used to make fertilizer. It's been happening for decades, but only now is coming to light after complaints by farmers in Quincy, Washington. Their allegations have prompted a nationwide effort to examine the safety of fertilizer derived from waste. From our northwest bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has this encore report.

(Cows lowing)

WITTE: Good morning, girls. [inaudible]

(Lowing continues)

FITZPATRICK: As the sun sets along Washington's Columbia River Valley, Tom Witte is doing what thousands of farmers do each evening. Feeding and milking the cows.

WITTE: (whistles) Get on in here! There you go.

(Clanking sounds amidst more lowing)

FITZPATRICK: Several years ago, disaster struck the Witte farm. The hay and alfalfa harvests fell by half. Several cows died of cancer. Mr. Witte wondered if something was poisoning his fields.

(Knocking sounds; more lowing)

WITTE: Yeah here's the tank, here's, this is the old fertilizer tank right here.

FITZPATRICK: So the fertilizer from inside here went out on the land?

WITTE: Yeah. Yeah.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Witte decided to have his fertilizer checked. He sent residue from his tank to a lab, which discovered a smorgasbord of dangerous metals.

WITTE: There's lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium --

FITZPATRICK: Inside a fertilizer tank.

WITTE: Yeah. Yeah.

FITZPATRICK: It turns out that some fertilizers are made from industrial waste. The waste can be a cheap source of beneficial minerals like zinc and iron and copper. But often it also contains potentially toxic tag-alongs. In high enough concentrations these contaminants can cause birth defects, neurological problems, immune system disorders, and cancer. To Mr. Witte and a handful of neighbors, this discovery was a shock.

WITTE: The basic belief is there's nothing wrong with fertilizer. It's kind of an article of faith, you know: fertilizer is good.

FITZPATRICK: But now, Mr. Witte claims the impurities forced his farm into bankruptcy.

WITTE: Mostly it makes you mad, you know. Mostly it's disgust.

(A dog barks in the distance)

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Witte has no scientific proof to back up his claims. And so far there's no groundswell of farmers from other towns complaining of similar problems. But Tom Witte's story has sent shockwaves throughout the fertilizer industry, by shedding light on a little-known practice. It's prompted several states and Congress to look into the safety of waste-derived fertilizer.

(Large engines)

FITZPATRICK: The factory-to-farm connection begins at facilities like the Holnam Company in Seattle.

(Engines continue)

FITZPATRICK: A huge kiln is cooking limestone and sand to make cement mix. The kiln is fired by coal, used oil, and shredded tires. The process produces a gray, dusty waste that's loaded with lime, a beneficial element for farming. Plant manager Nick Stiren collects the dust from his smokestack filters and sells it to a fertilizer company.

(Loud fans)

STIREN: The dust is used in the Northwest to control the acidity of the soil. The material is good; it's a good material.

FITZPATRICK: Government agencies have encouraged using waste like this in fertilizer rather than throwing it away. Bill Chapman is the Holnam Company's attorney.

CHAPMAN: The early 80s was a period in which people searched for ways to recycle as many household and industrial products as they could. And I sat in meetings with environmental agencies saying isn't there some way to recycle more of this? So markets were opened and sold with people saying go, go, go.

(Fans continue)

FITZPATRICK: The cement kiln dust contains toxic substances like dioxin, lead, and arsenic. But it's not classified as hazardous because the level of contaminants are low. The company says it's safe to use directly on farms. But even waste legally classified as hazardous is allowed to be blended with other ingredients to make fertilizer. Hundreds of companies have recycled their waste this way, including steel foundries, paper mills, even a uranium processing plant. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, industrial wastes containing 270 million pounds of potentially dangerous heavy metals were sent to farms or fertilizer factories between 1990 and 1995. Ken Cook, the group's director, says at least a third of the shipments had enough metals to qualify as hazardous.

COOK: This is an example where recycling is causing many more problems, probably, than it's solving. A factory that's producing the waste has two big choices. You can either spend a fair amount of money to deal with it as a hazardous waste, have it treated, have it disposed of in a landfill, or you can make a little money by shipping it to a fertilizer company because you've called it material for recycling or reuse.

FITZPATRICK: Under Federal rules, any kind of waste, no matter how toxic, can be used to make fertilizer, so long as the resulting product wouldn't be considered hazardous waste itself. Ken Cook complains the practice is loosely regulated. There is no Federal registration for fertilizers, or screening for contaminants. Companies do not have to disclose ingredients on the label.

COOK: So we really have sort of a situation that's custom-made for mischief. And the people who end up bearing the risk are the farmers who buy it and put it on their land.


FITZPATRICK: American farmers use 52 million tons of fertilizer every year.

(Engines continue)

FITZPATRICK: Each spring applicators as big as dump trucks spray the land with brightly-colored pellets.

(Engines and spraying)

FITZPATRICK: Industry officials say less than 4% of the fertilizer used in the US is made with industrial waste. They're the mineral supplement products, containing zinc and other micro-nutrients. There's no evidence this fertilizer is dangerous. In fact, says environmental toxicologist Allan Felsot at Washington State University, micro-nutrient fertilizer is used so sparingly that impurities are drastically watered down.

FELSOT: There's a tremendous dilution effect. So you may have in the product itself what looks like on paper high levels of cadmium or lead, but once you dilute this out, it's very, very tiny. In essence you've diluted it to essentially near background levels; that's what's naturally there anyway.

FITZPATRICK: Research has shown these tiny concentrations can be taken up by crops. But that doesn't necessarily make the crops unsafe to eat. One test showed you can even load the soil with drastic levels of cadmium and have only a tiny effect on how much ends up in the plants. Professor Felsot says that's's because for the most part these metals are in a form that won't dissolve in water, so plants can't absorb them.

FELSOT: We know that some of these metals are toxic, and we figure that oh, gee, if the metal's there, therefore it must be toxic. But that is not how toxicology works, and certainly that is not how risk assessment works. Therefore, if you're going to analyze what's in the soil and try to decide gee, is this a hazardous procedure or not, you better not only analyze the total metal but you better also analyze the amount of metal in solution. Because that is what's going to control the hazard.

FITZPATRICK: Other scientists, though, are alarmed industrial waste is finding its way to the farm, and feel there hasn't been enough research to prove the practice is safe. Only three crops have been tested for toxic effects, and soil scientist Bill Liebhardt from the University of California at Davis says a whole range of heavy metal risks has not been explored.

LIEBHARDT: We don't know if they're staying in the soil. We don't know if they're moving up the food chain into animals and people. And we have no idea if they're leaching into rivers or groundwater or things like that. So it seems to me like in a sense we're kind of playing Russian Roulette with the food supply.

FITZPATRICK: Dr. Liebhardt also complains no one has study whether repeated use could eventually cause metals to build up to a potentially dangerous level. The fertilizer industry insists this won't happen, but Dr. Liebhardt, who used to work for a fertilizer company, isn't convinced.

LIEBHARDT: I can understand what the fertilizer industry people are saying. They're trying to make people feel that there's no problem. But when you come right down to the bottom line, they don't know. They really don't know. And I don't, either. That's the bottom line in this whole thing.

FITZPATRICK: The unknowns are even greater for a fertilizer made with wastes containing dioxin. Research shows that people and animals can tolerate small doses of heavy metals, but it's an open question if a tiny dose of dioxin is safe. The EPA is currently reassessing dioxin hazards. Two other studies currently underway might answer some of the other questions about waste-derived fertilizer. One is funded by the industry and the other by the state of Washington.

(Horns and traffic sounds)

FITZPATRICK: The current scientific uncertainty has torn apart the town of Quincy, Washington. A few residents fear the effects of waste-derived fertilizer. But most folks do not.

(Man: "Kind of a bird's-eye view...")

FITZPATRICK: In a wooden barn at Quincy Farm Chemicals, owner Pete Romano shows me fertilizer made with tire ash and steel mill waste.

(Crackling sounds)

It's black and greenish brown. (Sniffing) Doesn't smell at all.

(Sounds continue)

You're not concerned that what comes out this hopper here might be poisoning the land around town?

ROMANO: No, not at all. Not at all.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Romano says recycling benefits the environment rather than harming it. Reusing minerals reduces the need for mining. It cuts the cost of fertilizer and saves space in landfills.

ROMANO: What's better, put it in one big hole? Or to process it and put it into a form that is usable and spread over many, many acres at very minute levels? What makes more sense?

(A milling crowd)

FITZPATRICK: Most of Mr. Romano's customers seem to agree. Recently, they gathered to hear from fertilizer makers and farmers like Murray Michael came away convinced recycling is safe.

MICHAEL: It's a lot of much ado, I believe, about very, very little in terms of the levels of heavy metals we're actually seeing in the fertilizer.

FITZPATRICK: Have you used these materials?

MICHAEL: Yes, I have.

FITZPATRICK: It hasn't hurt your land?

MICHAEL: It hasn't hurt my land that I'm aware of. No, it hasn't.

FITZPATRICK: Others aren't so sure. Patty Martin, who until recently was Quincy's mayor, is afraid that waste-derived fertilizer threatens both the town's economic base and the health of its residents. Quincy's schools are across the street from two fertilizer distribution companies.

MARTIN: I think it's wrong to unnecessarily expose populations of people to toxic chemicals without first proving that that exposure is safe. And children are the most vulnerable of those populations that are going to be exposed. And I think that's wrong.

FITZPATRICK: When she was mayor, Ms. Martin asked health officials to investigate Quincy for any unusual patterns of illness. They found nothing out of the ordinary. But the mayor's inquiries and subsequent press coverage prompted state officials to scrutinize the use of recycled waste. Environmentalists wanted the state to ban waste-derived fertilizer. Short of that they asked for explicit labels warning of any toxic tag-alongs. Ultimately, though the legislature adopted less stringent measures. All fertilizers sold in Washington will soon be screened for nine dangerous metals, and must meet new state standards. Labels will bear a general statement that the product has passed the test. These new rules make Washington the first state to regulate waste-derived fertilizer. But in Quincy, former mayor Patty Martin is disappointed. Dioxin screening will not be required, and it's not expected that any products will be taken off the market.

MARTIN: The fact that Washington State's putting their seal of approval on it and potentially setting a very weak example for the rest of the country, I don't feel good about that at all. I don't feel good about that at all.
(Cows lowing)

FITZPATRICK: Farmer Tom Witte is bitter, too. He's sworn off fertilizer and relies on manure instead. However, Mr. Witte says he hasn't been able to avoid heavy metals altogether. He still feeds bags of mineral supplement powder directly to his cows.

WITTE: I ran a test on this mineral about a year ago. It has a high level of arsenic in it. It's not listed on the label or anything, but the level of arsenic that was in it was high enough to cause the lab concern. It's a cumulative poison, see, and here I am feeding it.

(Cows keep lowing)

WITTE: There you go.

FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Quincy, Washington.

(Lowing continues)

CURWOOD: Since we first aired that report, Washington State's new regulations have had some unexpected consequences. Rather than meet the state's testing and labeling requirements, many companies are withdrawing their products from stores. More than a hundred different fertilizers, mostly the home and garden variety, will not be available next year. But one home and garden product that officials had threated to ban will continue to be sold. Ironite, which is made from mining residue, has a new package that meets the regulations by telling customers to use less of the product than before.



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