- SACRAMENTO, California (ENS)
- American farmers are spreading fertilizers containing toxic waste on
farm fields and home gardens, California state and independent tests have
- Even though these products may exceed federal standards
defining hazardous waste, the State of California is proposing new rules
that would legalize the current practice of allowing these toxics to be
mixed into fertilizers according to Dr. Bill Liebhart, a soil scientist
in the Agronomy and Range Science Department at the University of California
at Davis, who is also a veteran of the fertilizer industry.
- In California's Salinas Valley, where much of America's
lettuce is produced, researchers Edward Ryder and William Waycott from
the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture check out an array of unique lettuces. (Photo
courtesy USDA) State data analyzed by California Public Interest Research
Group (CALPIRG) and Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that more than
one sixth of the commercial fertilizers tested by the state from 1994 to
1998 exceeded federal hazardous waste thresholds.
- A new report by the two environment groups, "As
You Sow: Toxic Waste in California Farm and Home Fertilizers," shows
"fertilizer manufacturers are using California gardens and farms as
dumping grounds for toxic waste," said CALPIRG toxics director Jonathan
- Each year, U.S. fertilizer manufacturers buy tons of
waste from industrial facilities such as steel mills and smelters to obtain
low cost plant nutrients such as zinc or iron, the environmental groups
report. Industrial waste is often heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals
- Dr. Liebhart says cadmium, mercury and arsenic and maybe
dioxin and other toxic organic materials could be components of the zinc-bearing
waste mixed into fertilizers. These chemicals are known to cause cancer,
reproductive and developmental problems.
- The California Department of Food and Agriculture is
proposing a new set of guidelines to deal with toxic wastes in fertilizers.
Dr. Liebhart told ENs, My sense is that they are so liberal it allows the
practice now going on to continue. There should have been research done
on this material before it was ever spread on land. This was never done."
- "If this material went into a landfill, it would
have to be treated as hazardous waste," Dr. Liebhart said. "There
are reputable good products out there, but people cannot tell which ones
they are," the soil scientist said.
- "I don't think there's any way to know how much
land has been spread with industrial fertilizers containing toxic waste.
This is a nationwide problem. I can't say whether 1/10 of one percent or
10 percent or 70 percent of the land has been spread with these materials.
No one knows much about this. I can't prove this causes problems - no one
can prove it doesn't," Dr. Liebhart said.
- There are safe sources of zinc for these crops. Many
of the normal legitimate sources of zinc fertilizer have the needed 40
to 50 percent water solubility and no toxics, he said.
- "We know that contaminants in waste-derived fertilizers
can get into the food chain," said Dr. Liebhart. "Guessing the
highest 'safe Liebhart for these contaminants is a risky business - and
if we're wrong, it may not be possible to clean up contaminated farm fields."
- Home gardeners run risks of their own, the environmental
groups allege. Laboratory tests of Ironite, a popular home fertilizer,
showed every sample was contaminated with lead and arsenic at two to four
times the federal hazardous waste threshold, the groups claim.
- But Ironite Products Company, producer of Ironite, says
misunderstandings about basic mineralogy are being used to create scare
tactics over their fertilizer.
- Responding to the allegations of the environmental groups,
Ironite said the product is a "natural soil supplement and fertilizer
not manufactured from any toxic waste product but rather from naturally
occurring rock containing minerals."
- Ironite said, "According to the United States Environmental
Protection Agency and State of Washington oral LD50 testing methods in
which the prescribed maximum dose of Ironite was fed to laboratory rats,
Ironite is not considered toxic if accidentally ingested. In fact, Ironite
was found safer than common table salt."
- But the two environmental groups are not convinced. "Last
year, Washington State health officials warned consumers that ingestion
of less than half a teaspoon of Ironite could be toxic to small children,"
the groups said.
- CALPIRG and EWG are urging California retailers to stop
selling Ironite until the state requires that the package carry a health
warning. "We see no justification for allowing products like Ironite
on the market," said Bill Walker, California director of EWG. "At
the very least, the label should inform consumers that the product contains
high levels of persistent toxins."
- But the whole controversy is based on misunderstanding,
according to the company. Ironite contains small amounts of two naturally
occurring minerals - galena and arsenopyrite.
- Galena is a combination of lead and sulfur molecules
fused together by millions of years of heat and pressure. Arsenopyrite
is a combination of arsenic, iron and sulfur, also fused together by millions
of years of heat and pressure.
- "The lead in galena and the arsenic in arsenopyrite
are chemically bonded within the minerals, rendering these elements unavailable
for uptake by plants and humans," said Paul Bergstrom of Knight Piesold,
an environmental consulting firm in Denver cited by Ironite.
- "The results of our risk assessment report found
that prolonged use of Ironite does not represent a health risk to residents
when applied as recommended on the label," said Will Humble of the
Arizona Department of Health Services, Office of Environmental Health.
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