Health Effects of Synthetic Fertilizer
The video below is an amendment to this article. It was filmed in October 2014 as an update and to answer some of the many questions we receive.
Synthetic fertilizers can seriously deplete the nutritional content of foods. Direct contact or exposure to synthetic chemical fertilizers can kill babies or cause health problems for many people. Remember this the next time you pick up a bag at Walmart. Also, if you have any type of urinary or kidney or liver or allergy or health difficulties, you should especially avoid any type of exposure. The adverse effects of synthetic chemical fertilizers are often underplayed and ignored despite their damage being far-reaching. Synthetic fertilizers can cause a vast array of symptoms, some immediate, some signs showing up later, some effects on people and animals are direct, and some effects are indirect. Synthetic fertilizers include many brand names: Scotts, Miracle Grow (owned by Scotts), Shultz, Pennington, TruGreen, etc.
I recently became very interested in the subject after reading about the physical symptoms of workers handling fertilizers and the harsh air of a retail garden area.
In the U.S., generally there are three hyphenated numbers (for example 15-5-10) on the front label of fertilizer bags representing the percentage of each element by weight in the bag. The elements represented are N, P, and K. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. For example, the expression "15-5-10" means: 15% of the weight of the bag contains Nitrogen, 5% of the weight of the bag contains phosphorous, and 10% of the weight of the bag contains Potassium. Upon further reading on a bag, you will see an analysis of the types of chemical compounds used in order to reach these percentages. In other words, you will see a listing of the chemicals used to reach those percentages of 15-5-10. The synthetic chemicals used to reach these percentages of 15-5-10 can be different in different fertilizers. Some chemicals are more harsh than others, but they all end up being harmful to plants and animals. These components written on the bag are "guaranteed" to be in the bag by law. What is written on the bag must be in the bag. Some states have slightly different regulations. These synthetic chemical compounds can be directly and indirectly harmful in a number of ways. More on that later.
You will notice in the above example that 15-5-10 add up to a total of 30% of the weight of the bag. What is in the other 70% of the bag? It is not disclosed. It does not have to be revealed. It can be just about anything...including, and often, industrial waste. Some things this mysterious 70% could contain are clay, sand, sawdust, perlite, rice hulls, calcium carbonate (to dampen the detonation properties of the Nitrogen's ammonium nitrate), corn cob grit, vermiculite, limestone, sludge, slag, industrial waste. Most people would be skeptical to believe that toxic residues from industry would be used to fill up the majority of a bag of fertilizer. Believe it. It is actually widespread. You can search the fertilizer codes of some states and see (e.g. Kentucky and its procedures on slag). An independent research group tested fertilizers from only 12 states for 22 toxic heavy metals...and found that these fertilizers contained high levels of these toxic substances. Of the 29 fertilizers tested some were major and popular brands. Lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, barium, chromium, nickel, beryllium, dioxin, etc. can be pretty potent stuff. You can have kids and pets playing with the stuff, people breathing the dust, these toxins getting into the water runoff, agricultural accumulation in soils, plants, and vegetables uptake many of these, etc. The metals found in these fertilizers are known or suspected carcinogens, reproductive and developmental, liver, and blood toxicants. In about a five year period, 270,000,000 (270 million) pounds of toxic waste was sent to fertilizer companies and farms according to reports from 44 different states. Regulations are extremely strict if industry wishes to dispose of toxic waste in lined landfills. However, regulations are relatively lax if they transfer the waste or resale it. In other words, the simplest method of getting rid of toxic waste is just to resale it. So, unwittingly we become the consumers who purchase toxic waste to dump on our yards and parks and food crops and feed crops. Also, conventional agriculture is a big culprit in taking all kinds of industrial waste, sludge, and/or sewage sludge and dumping it onto fields as fertilization. To give you an idea of how nutty this can go you can look at a relatively safe fertilizer: manure (when it is composted). Conventional farmers are not required to delay harvesting after applying fresh manure. Organic farmers must wait 90-120 days between application of raw manure and the harvest of any organic crop which may be eaten raw, which allows the fresh manure time to compost and thus, prevent the spread of any potentially dangerous bacteria. From talking with different farmers and ranchers, I was amazed at how gross the dumping of masses of chemicals onto fields really was.
Back to N-P-K. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium. There are 72 naturally occurring mineral elements. These are three of them. These are essential for plant cell growth. There are about 10 other minerals which are also essential for plant cell growth, but many other minerals are also very important for healthy soil and plants. Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen are three essential nutrients for plants (i.e. derived from water and carbon dioxide). Their respective percentages in a whole plant are roughly 45%, 44%, 6%. Compared to the percentages of these nutrients and the percentages of all the other minerals; Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium actually have relatively low percentages. However, these three elements have been over-played and over-emphasized with the commercial, synthetic fertilizers for a variety of reasons. It should be noted that there is a natural balance for healthy soil and healthy plants which includes microbes and the environment. When the synthetic and unnatural force-feeding of chemicals occurs, the balance gets out of wack and problems occur. So, adding just these three elements is as nutty as feeding your children only cheerios, milk and juice. In fact, these three elements added synthetically can dramatically upset how plants can absorb other necessary mineral elements. These are only 3 of 13 essential elements, but there are many other important ones also. It is not a natural, balanced diet for plants.
I should mention that weeds serve a natural function in that they often grow where soil is less alive or in hardship. You will see weeds sprout up like crazy on bare exposed earth or in soils not properly balanced. Often weeds will pull up minerals and nutrients almost in an attempt to restore a balance. You probably notice sand burrs in sandy soils lacking humus. Or you might notice the graded lot with bare exposed soil lacking in its topmost fertile layers become prolific with weeds. Fortunately, some farmers now have curbed their plowing and exposing of nutritious soils by a "no-till system". Mother nature has weeds there to balance some of the offsets. I am not promoting weeds, but just explaining some factors which bring about weeds, and thus, use of these extremely toxic herbicides. When soil does not have good health, one can expect weeds. Synthetic fertilizers do more to offset the natural balance than to restore it.
Nitrogen (when forcibly fed to plants) is known for promoting rapid excessive green growth (much like steroids in a human). Nitrogen is the big player in commercial fertilizers. The appearance is a rapid lush green growth when applied on the lawn. This certainly could drive sales of commercial synthetic fertilizers. However, this is not what it seems. This action actually causes harm to plants and animals in a number of ways.
Commercial synthetic fertilizers boomed following World War ll. Ammonium nitrate had been used for munitions and explosives during the war (e.g. the Oklahoma City bomber had about 5,000 pounds of fertilizer in his Ryder). An outlet for ammonium nitrate producers was found in the fertilizer marketplace. Ammonium nitrate is a major source of nitrogen for synthetic fertilizers.
Ammonium nitrate (NH3NO3): Ammonia, a base, is extremely toxic to humans. It has a sharp penetrating odor. Nitric acid is mixed with ammonia to form a salt, ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate can easily have reactions if exposed to a variety of metals (e.g. iron, zinc, copper), acids, alkalis, solvents, oil, grease, etc. You will notice that bags of fertilizer are often plastic coated and sealed in order to keep contaminants out and gases in. Storage alone will give off ammonia. Introduce heat to fertilizer and there will be further instability. The release of toxic fumes is one of the main hazards associated with the decomposition of Ammonium nitrate. Exposure to ammonium nitrate can cause eye and skin irritation and burns. Inhalation exposure can result in irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs. One can also experience nausea, vomiting, flushing of the face and neck, headache, nervousness, uncontrolled muscle movements, faintness and collapse. Because ammonia or nitrates combine rapidly with water, feeling dehydrated is common. Lips will become dry. The next time you handle or are exposed to chemical fertilizer, you will probably notice some of these symptoms. Because the accumulation of ammonia in the body can quickly lead to death, the urea cycle in humans is extremely important.
Nitrate is converted to a very toxic substance (nitrite) within the digestive systems of human infants and also different livestock and poultry and birds. During the first few months of an infants life or in some baby animals or in some adult animals there exists a bacteria in the stomach which changes the nitrate to nitrite. Nitrite is extremely toxic and reacts with the hemoglobin in the blood to cut out the oxygen supply. It does not take a whole lot of substance to start producing toxic reactions. A baby will suffocate if not given immediate medical attention. Signs are parts of the body turning blue or the blood turning chocolate brown. These signs occur with both humans and animals. Some livestock will go into convulsions and then die. Pregnant mothers should also dramatically avoid fertilizers. Also, you certainly would not want to expose any of your young pets (or some adult species) to fertilizer. As a baby gets older, the hydrochloric acid in the stomach kills off the bacteria which changes the nitrate to nitrite. It should be noted that the bacteria which convert the nitrate into the deadly nitrite can exist in adults to various degrees.
Nitrogen: Nitrogen is an essential constituent of proteins. In humans, when our proteins (amino acids) breakdown, the nitrogen waste from the protein turns to ammonia (NH3). Ammonia is very, very toxic, but the liver along with other body functions quickly convert the ammonia into a less toxic substance, urea [(NH2)2CO]. While urea has some toxicity, we excrete it when we go to the bathroom or sweat. However, the body is set up to process and handle nitrogen waste only at a constant rate. If there is too much nitrogen waste for the body to handle at one time, you will notice that you start to feel poorly. The highly toxic ammonia content starts to buildup in the body (and possibly the less toxic urea buildup if there are difficulties with the kidneys or other body systems). You might personally observe this at those times you eat too much in proteins, such as meat. A person will start to feel kind of lousy and kind of poisoned in an odd sort of way. Some bacteria and parasites in the body also can dump toxic ammonia into the system causing similar symptoms. So, you can imagine how stressful this is on a body's system when nitrogen from fertilizers enters the body through the air, skin, or ingestion. The body can only handle so much at a time. Also, ammonia can easily affect the brain which lacks the enzyme essential for changing it into urea.
Synthetic fertilizers can contain any number of chemical combinations of nitrate or ammonia or urea or other chemicals to satisfy the N-P-K. On the label below the numbers e.g., 15-5-10, you will see the chemicals used, primarily water soluble mineral salts and phosphorus. Close relatives to ammonium nitrate may be used to satisfy the nitrogen content (and perhaps the P or K content). Urea may also be used. However, this urea is the synthetic version made from ammonia and carbon dioxide. Some chemicals listed on a bag of fertilizer could be calcium nitrate, sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, urea, ammoniated super-phosphate, triple super phosphate (probably one of the most harmful to soil quality), potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, potash.
As an aside: sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate (sometimes called saltpeter) have many similar characteristics and chemical properties. Gunpowder is made by adding sulfur and charcoal. This salt has also been used. Normally, meat turns gray when cooked. This (or the nitrite form) is what is often used to keep meats pink, even though the meats may have been cooked during processing. You will probably see it as an ingredient on the packages of many foods (hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni, etc). To a certain degree it does inhibit bacteria. In food it can be beneficial to inhibit bacteria, but in soil it is one of the worst things you can do. However, there are many more effective and safer ways to inhibit bacteria on foods. The primary use of this salt in foods is to keep color. It takes 10 times the amount which inhibits bacteria in order to achieve this color preservation effect. Sodium nitrite has been shown to cause cancer as a result of its reactions in the stomach. Of course, you just read the data about how the body processes nitrogen or the toxic effects of nitrite. It is kind of hard to believe that this substance is still prolifically put in foods primarily to make them sell better. Sodium (or potassium) nitrate can really irritate the respiratory track with a shortness of breath if the dust is inhaled. It can cause all kinds of gastric and stomach pains, dizziness, bloody diarrhea, convulsions, headaches, mental impairments, redness or itching on the skin or eyes, collapse.
Feeding nitrogen to plants
The air is about 80% nitrogen. In nature, this is where the nitrogen nutrient originates. It can be brought into the soil by rain, other plants (such as legumes: alfalfa, clover, peas, etc.), other organisms (such as blue-green algae or microbes), the decay of other green plants, etc. There are about 50,000,000,000 (fifty billion) microbes in a tablespoon of healthy soil. Many more near the roots of plants. Their primary job is to breakdown organic matter and to also feed plants. You could have every element in its proper proportion available in the soil, but without the microbial action plants would not be able to utilize them. Synthetic chemical fertilizers actually inhibit, kill and alter this natural microbial activity which is so very important to healthy plants. In healthy soil there are herds of microbes near the roots of plants which out-compete pathogenic species and form a protective layer on the surface of living plant roots. Microbes are essential in making minerals available to plants and they also retain large quantities of nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, etc.) in their bodies which helps to prevent these nutrients from being leached or washed away. Some microbes eat the dead cells of other microbes thus retaining the nutrients within the soil. In the natural process, predator organisms which eat other microbes get too much nitrogen in relation to the carbon that they require. It takes 30 parts of carbon to assimilate one part of nitrogen in a normal soil. When the predator microbe consumes excessive amounts of nitrogen, it is released into the soil as nitrate. Plants can only use nitrogen in the nitrate form. (For example, ammonia nitrogen can not be accessed by plants until it is broken down into the nitrate form by microbial action.) Nitrate is very, very, very water soluble. Remember this point when you read further down.
A variety of consequences occur when plants are forcibly fed too much nitrogen, especially in the direct nitrate forms you have seen in synthetic fertilizers.
The plant can absorb only so much nitrate. Nitrate dissolves very easily in water. But the real clincher is that it is EXTREMELY difficult to remove from water. So, the excess nitrate gets washed away. It does not filter out of water through the soil. I will repeat that point. Generally, the farther water travels through soil, the safer it becomes as contaminants are diluted or filtered out. Nitrate is the exception. It can ruin well water and one would have to dig a new well where no nitrate leaching has occurred. Older folks like me have watched our vibrant and clear creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes change over the years. In fact, in Texas it is now illegal to eat fish caught from many of our waters because of their toxicity. This is largely due to the amount of chemicals we put onto our soil. Nitrate is in your tap water (and perhaps bottled water). It is not removed by filtering, boiling, or softening. Treatment for nitrate removal from water is very complicated and expensive. My personal consideration is that this is a method in which synthetic fertilizers can harm people or pets and soil in the long-term, overall picture of things is extremely damaging.
There is another consequence with synthetic chemical fertilizers. This is probably the worst effect of all.
An incredible interaction and activity exists with plants and microbes and other organisms and the environment. This processing of organic matter, nutrients and minerals is immensely complex and delicate. It is almost laughable to think that one can throw three elements in the form of synthetic chemicals onto the soil and say: Now I have balanced the mineral and biological and ion and ph and microbial content of the soil. The exact opposite occurs. Microbes are destroyed or inhibited in their balance when synthetics arrive. Microbes help to provide proper ph. Organic material alive with microbes is electrically charged and so there is ion action. The artificial force feeding of these three elements throw the balance of other minerals and nutrients completely off within the plant. This stresses the plant, making the plant deficient in nutrients. Stressed plants attract diseases and pests. That is nature's way of handling the sick. Then, because the plant has bugs or a fungus, someone comes along with a chemical pesticide or fungicide in order to try to remedy the situation. In fact, many soil microbes directly attack and kill insect pests, and many also directly fight off plant diseases. An example is sulfur uptake into the plant can be inhibited by artificial fertilizers. Fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, the dairy cows did not really have a problem with lice. More natural methods of fertility were used. But now there is a problem with these type of exterior parasites. You may have seen over chemicalized soils appear colorless, bleached or salty. The carbon fraction (the humus) gets burned up in the assimilation process of nitrogen. Synthetics can change the ph and tie up beneficial elements, but also can start to cause toxicity levels of other elements. Artificial inducement of one element can cause all kinds of weird bonding to occur with other elements. This all translates to the foods which we eat. With naturally grown foods, you do not have to worry about pesticides or herbicides, but probably the best benefit of organic foods is their nutritional content. The difference can be dramatic. This includes livestock and poultry which are fed naturally grown grasses and food. Nutritional content is markedly different. As a culture, we are becoming more and more nutritionally deficient and filled with toxic residues as an indirect result of synthetic fertilizers. This stresses the body making it more prone to health problems.
In other words, synthetic fertilizers can dramatically diminish the nutritional value of foods. Since synthetic fertilizers also diminish the natural disease-fighting and pest-fighting mechanisms, our foods thus become laden with other chemicals (pesticides and herbicides). So, we end up with foods which are lacking in viable nutrition and also loaded with residues form other chemicals. This kind of activity is not healthy for humans or animals. This consequence is probably the worst of all, especially in light of the fact that more natural methods of growing plants are easier, more economical, and more viable.
I should mention that the probiotics of fresh vegetables alone can help a person. In other words, when eating fresh greens, you can obtain beneficial microbes in a way that is similar to yogurt's beneficial microbes.
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