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Fatal fertilizers? 

by Pia K. Hansen


It's not just sunshine that makes the fields greener in spring. Industrial waste from all over the nation -- and from some foreign countries, too -- routinely ends up on agricultural land as fertilizer. The most common fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK fertilizer), all of which are pretty common industrial waste products. And it's not these chemicals by themselves that some environmental groups say pose a threat to consumers. Rather it's the traces of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, copper and zinc that come as part of the industrial waste that they say should kick the Environmental Protection Agency into high gear.


"I know of hazardous waste with high levels of zinc, from steel mills, that was being disposed of as fertilizer," says Patty Martin, the founder of the local group Safe Food and Fertilizer. "When you buy a bag of fertilizer, its guaranteed on the NPK levels, but there is no disclosure on the toxic tag-alongs like uranium, lead and dioxins you are getting in the bag at the same time."


Martin is the former mayor of Quincy, Wash., but she now spends most of her time trying to organize a public response to what she calls the EPA's weak regulation of hazardous waste in fertilizers. On Tuesday, she'll be speaking about her work and her findings at a public meeting at the Community Building on West Main.


"I'm not a farmer, but where I live I'm surrounded by farm land, so I figure, yeah, I do live on a farm," says Martin, about how she got interested in this issue. "I talked to farmers who had lost crops to total failure, and we started piecing together what we think is happening."


What she thinks is happening is that toxins from the industrial waste the fertilizer is made out of, end up in the soil and in the plants where it accumulates in high levels. And once it's in the plants, it ends up on America's dinner tables. The chemicals are harmful to people, especially to pregnant or nursing women and to children.


"No one seems to know exactly how much of these chemicals are being absorbed by the plants -- what is called total uptake. And what's not accounted for in uptake, is just left in the soil," says Martin. "I just think there are too many uncertainties, too many unknowns, for us to continue to allow this practice."


According to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., based public interest group that campaigns to protect the environment, more than 450 fertilizer companies or farms in 38 states received shipments of toxic waste totaling more than 270 million pounds, between 1990-95.


"When you use these fertilizers, you are disposing of the industrial waste. The only federal standard on safe disposal of these things is the land disposal standard, but that standard was designed for the disposal of hazardous waste into a landfill, not onto agricultural land," says Martin. "The landfill is lined, the groundwater around it is monitored and the owner has made financial promises to clean up any spills and that they can clean up the entire site at its closure."


The industries that manage to dispose of their waste as fertilizer avoid being held to the high standards for safe disposal.


"Now the people instead turn the dangerous chemicals into fertilizer and dump them on the land, where there are no lined sites, no groundwater monitoring, no safety procedures like that," says Martin. "Then how do you hold the producers of the waste responsible for the pollution they cause?"


But the EPA is not totally sitting on its hands. The agency released a draft report analyzing the health risk posed by toxic contaminates contained in agricultural fertilizers in 1999. That report found that of the large number of fertilizers evaluated, only a few had contaminant levels high enough to potentially cause cancer risk or other health hazards of concern. Also, since 1998, the Washington State Department of Agriculture has applied the Washington Standards for Metals to all fertilizer applications, setting a maximum level for annual addition of the chemicals in question. But this doesn't satisfy Martin.


"I believe there is too much circumstantial evidence to the harm these chemicals are doing. Children's cancer rates are going up, asthma rates are up, this stuff is blowing in the wind," says Martin, adding that she is more concerned about breathing in the chemicals with the dust from the farmland, than with eating contaminated crops. And she wants this practice to stop.


"We should follow the precautionary principle, you know, it should be shown that things are safe before they are being used, like they do in Europe and Asia. It's the unknowns -- that is why you can't allow this to go on. If we err anywhere, we should err on the side of caution."





& & Sponsored by Spokane Tilth, People for Environmental Action and Children's Health and the Green Party of Spokane County, Patty Martin gives her presentation on Tuesday, March 20, at 7 pm at the Community Building, 35 W. Main St. Call: 747-1663. & lt;/center &
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