Synthetic Fertilizer Pollution

Synthetic fertilizer pollution has seen a lot of media coverage in the past decade, and the environmental movement is well aware of the dangers posed by this problem.

Synthetic fertilizers are composed mostly of nitrogen and phosphorous -- the two compounds which produce the greatest impact on plant growth. Although synthetic fertilizers may produce impressively quick results in your garden, or at commercial farms where growth equals profit, the liberal and uncontrolled use of these synthetic compounds can lead to fertilizer pollution.

Water pollution

Synthetic fertilizers can easily leech into lakes or rivers with the help of rain water or excessive watering, leading to water pollution. Once there, they change the ratio of nutrients in the body of water, and this imbalance has several effects on the water bodies as well as on human health.

When phosphorous in the synthetic fertilizer runs off the soil as fertilizer pollution, its enhanced presence in the water bodies causes microscopic algae to bloom at enhanced rates. Algae blooms feeding on this phosphorous runoff can clog sewer pipes and drainage ways, and cause water to become stagnant. Some regions use a lot more fertilizers in their agriculture than is desired, and as a result have to deal with heavily overgrown waterways. Algal blooms also make water filtration a lot harder, which means that getting clean drinking water to the citizens of that region becomes increasingly difficult.

Water pollution in any region of the world affects not only humans, but also the wildlife, through limiting their drinking supply.

Lower crop yields

The excessive use of synthetic fertilizer may increase yields in the short term, but will decrease yields and productivity rate of existing farmlands in the long term, as well as cause serious water pollution.

Excessive fertilizer can cause “fertilizer burns” in plants – the leaves turn brown (resembling burn marks), the roots dry out and the plants die.

Nitrogen-rich synthetic fertilizers can acidify the soil over time. This acidification causes leeches away the nutrients in the soil and kills the beneficial soil organisms that aid in plant growth. In the absence of crucial plant nutrients and beneficial soil organisms, plant growth is hindered.

It is hence not surprising that synthetic fertilizers are often less capable of replacing the trace minerals in soil and improve the soil’s biodiversity, as compared to organic fertilizers. Subsequently, for farmlands where only synthetic fertilizers are used, the minerals become depleted from the soil gradually with each harvest. This depletion not only affects crop yields, but also the nutritional value of fruit and vegetables grown.

A harm to health

The nitrogen in synthetic fertilizer can cause serious harm to humans through fertilizer pollution. Nitrogen can be present in several chemical forms, such as nitrates. And when water contains more than 10 parts per million of these nitrogen compounds, the drinking water can become a danger to infants. Infants under the age of 6 months have been found to be highly susceptible to methemoglobinemia – a disease that prevents infants from using oxygen, also known as the acquired “blue baby syndrome” – caused by the nitrates . As such, fertilizer pollution is a big problem which is not only visible in the green blooms of algae, but also in our health as well.

Bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals

Fertilizer pollution is also a threat when it comes to the bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals in the bodies of animals high on the food chain – i.e. humans.

Heavy metal contaminants, like Cadmium and Mercury, found in some synthetic fertilizers often find their way into our food supply. These heavy metals might be taken up by plants through contaminated water and soil, or might be consumed by animals in our food chain.

And once in our bodies these metals stay around for a decade or so. Cadmium bioaccumulation is associated with renal dysfunction, lung disease and some bone defects. If fertilizer pollution from inorganic, manmade fertilizer goes unchecked over the next several decades, there will be an increasing number of the human population affected by these negative consequences.

Using organic fertilizers

With the exploding world population today, the power of fertilizers is needed to produce adequate amounts of food for everyone. However, there has always been a natural way to feed our plants with all the nutrients they need while avoiding the depletion of farmlands, the pollution of waterways and the destruction of ecosystems.

The answer is a return to the use of organic and natural fertilizers. Materials that are naturally abundant like cow, sheep and goat manure, as well as decaying plant material, provide wonderful and non-hazardous fertilizer.

Organic fertilizers tend to be released much more slowly than the synthetic variety, and thus do not over acidify the soil nor “burn” the plants. The organic fertilizer helps replenish trace minerals into lands, while maintaining the biodiversity of the soil. And although the nutrients in organic fertilizers may be less readily available to the plants, these fertilizers are at least as effective as synthetic fertilizers over longer periods of use. Read about the difference between synthetic fertilizer and organic fertilizer.

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