Nitrogen's deadly harvest

Polluted waters: Unleashing chemical fertilizer yielded bounty, at high environmental cost.

September 29, 2000

HUMAN INGENUITY has transformed nitrogen, by far the largest component of Earth's atmosphere, into a miracle fuel of incredible food abundance.

Now that unchained chemical benefactor appears to threaten environmental cataclysm by poisoning the waters of the globe and much of the life within them.

The Sun's five-part series, "Nitrogen's Deadly Harvest," by reporters Heather Dewar and Tom Horton, explores the widespread impact of this fertilizer (and proliferating waste) that feeds a growing world, but at a perilous cost.

It is not a tale of premeditated villainy, but of unthinking excess. This nitrogen surplus nurtures virulent algae that suck oxygen from the waters, denude underwater grasslands and attack an array of sea creatures beneficial to man and a healthy environment.

Many of the world's bodies of water suffer from excess nitrogen generated by human activity. It is the major pollutant of the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic and the East China seas.

The portending calamity is partly ecumenical: too many people trying to live too high on the food chain. And partly parochial: prodigal use of chemical fertilizers, careless management of animal and human wastes.

More efficient application of fertilizers, better control of surface runoff, tighter limits on fertilizer producers and a crackdown on scofflaw dumping of nitrogen chemicals would help. So would eliminating ineffective septic systems and upgrading of sewage treatment plants.

But unchecked population increase, with an insatiable hunger for more meat and dairy products, will continue to swell the world's stores of released nitrogen.

Nature's nitrogen cycle long held in balance the flow of this basic chemical through its various forms. Recent human tinkering has doubled the amount of nitrogen available for living creatures. It is an open question if equal human effort will be able to contain this Promethean benefaction.

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