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Sunday, July 20, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Here Are Answers About Practice Of Recycling Wastes

Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about The Seattle Times series on the recycling of hazardous wastes into fertilizers:

Q: The series was titled "Fear in the Fields." Is this fear based on the unknown, or on valid scientific concerns?

A: Both. Some farm families are afraid because they don't know what they've put on their crops. And some reputable soil scientists who have published studies are concerned about the growing practice of recycling toxic materials into fertilizer, sprinkling them around farms and building up heavy metals in the soil.

Other scientists, meanwhile, say there is nothing to fear. But even they agree more research is needed.

Even in the recycled-wastes industry itself, some admit to uncertainty. Martin Hight, plant manager of Chemical and Pigment in Pittsburg, Calif., makes zinc-sulfate fertilizer from steel-mill wastes.

"Are the cadmium and lead concerns legitimate? I don't know," he said. "I don't know. I'm not an expert. We put it on fields at very low rates, but we don't know what happens when it builds up."

Q: Is my food safe?

A: Almost certainly. The Food and Drug Administration says food is lower in many toxic materials than it was 20 years ago.

But, at the same time, the risk of disease from farming practices is a subject of ongoing scientific debate. And, until now, few people knew fertilizer was adding toxic substances to the soil.

Heavy metals build up in the soil over time and accumulate up the food chain.

A 1995 World Health Organization report, focusing on the "waste-soil-plant-human route" of sewage sludge applied to agriculture, said, "Food-chain transfer is the primary route of human exposure to environmental pollutants." The report recommended convening an international committee of experts to explore the need for global guidelines.

The long-latency period for health effects such as cancer means health problems can take years or generations to build up. And national food-risk standards are constantly changing as science improves.

For example, the average levels of lead in foods and in human blood are significantly lower than before the government banned leaded gasoline and lead-soldered food cans. At the same time, more scientists are saying there is no safe level of lead.

Q: Is this another Alar scare?

A: No. No one is saying consumers should avoid particular agricultural products. We don't know about any unsafe crops. But many experts say more testing and research are essential.

By the way, calling it the Alar "scare" reflects a common misconception. It wasn't a false alarm. Alar, which was used to preserve apples for shipping, was banned as a carcinogen two years after a "60 Minutes" report on it in 1989, and the apple farmers who sued the TV network for libel lost their case at every level of the courts.

Q: How can I find out if the fertilizer I buy contains potentially hazardous ingredients?

A: You can't. The label only includes advertised nutrients.

You can request something called a Material Safety Data Sheet from the manufacturer. But it only lists dangerous chemicals over 1 percent of the total makeup (10,000 parts per million), and carcinogenic chemicals over 0.1 percent (1,000 parts per million).

For lower amounts that can still cause health problems, the sheets don't say. And they don't give precise amounts - instead, merely listing the major ingredients.

Q: Don't some heavy metals, including lead, occur naturally in soils at far greater amounts than the amounts found in these fertilizers?

A: No. Cadmium, lead and the other metals of concern are present in soil naturally, but at much lower levels than most of the fertilizers that contain them.

The average soil in Washington state contains 17.1 parts per million lead. More than 100 fertilizer products whose analytical results were obtained by The Seattle Times - both recycled-waste fertilizers and traditional fertilizers - had higher amounts of lead. About 60 other products had no lead reported.

Generally, recycled hazardous-waste fertilizers contain higher amounts of lead and cadmium than the other products on the market.

A micro-nutrient mix tested by the state last month had 3,410 parts per million lead. And zinc-fertilizer products from a number of companies that recycle hazardous steel-mill waste contain lead at 10,000 to 29,400 parts per million.

Q: Is this a new practice?

A: No. One fertilizer regulator said at a national meeting 49 years ago: "Apparently anyone who comes across a pile of waste material outside a factory, or tailings outside a mine, or a hill composed of unusual mineral or clay is immediately seized with the conviction that its peculiar properties will rescue modern agriculture."

But the practice has increased in the past 20 years, as environmental laws have required industries to dispose of their wastes more carefully. And although some farmers have had calamitous results with recycled-waste fertilizers, many have used them with apparent success.

Q: Are the people recycling dangerous wastes into fertilizer considered criminals?

A: No, with a few exceptions. They're business people who are following the rules laid down by Congress, the EPA, state legislatures and departments of agriculture.

For the most part, the system has encouraged this recycling. The system has never looked at fertilizers as closely as it does pesticides, feed and food. The system doesn't require independent tests, follow-up tests or full disclosure in labeling.

When a scofflaw or criminal is caught exceeding the lax rules of the system, the potential for abuse comes into focus.

"We just happened to catch it," said Ben Haygood, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Stoller of Charleston, S.C., for illegally exporting fertilizer laced with cadmium and lead.

"I think there is a tremendous potential for abuse. The whole market is set up so a company can use hazardous waste for fertilizer legally, and it's not carefully scrutinized."

Q: Are the metal levels of U.S. fertilizers within the Canadian limits?

A: Most are. Some, especially some recycled-waste fertilizers, are not. Canada sets a numeric limit on arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, zinc and cobalt in fertilizer, adjusting the limit higher if fertilizers have more than 5 percent nitrogen.

Numerous products used on U.S. farms don't meet that standard, but it's unclear how many have been turned away by Canada.

Darlene Blair, Canada's top fertilizer regulator, says she hasn't kept track and that the information would be proprietary anyway. But Blair also says she has been told that some U.S. companies send their cleanest fertilizers to Canada and keep the more contaminated materials at home.

"Sometimes, these guys will say to me, you know, `I'm registered as a fertilizer in 34 states!' " Blair said. "I think, well, good for you, but we won't do that."

Q: How do recycled-waste fertilizers compare with other fertilizers?

A: They tend to be higher in lead and cadmium, according to a Times survey of about 35 recycled products, and 180 mined and mixed products.

Many of the nonrecycled products also contain trace amounts of heavy metals, a few at fairly high levels.

Q: Is there a way to make fertilizers containing smaller amounts of heavy metals?

A: Yes. Companies could remove more of these substances with additional investment. There is debate over how much that would cost.

Kipp Smallwood, sales manager for a Colorado company that sells fertilizers with very low levels of heavy metals, says such fertilizers should cost farmers only pennies or dimes more per acre than those with higher levels.

On the other hand, Dick Camp, president of Bay Zinc of Moxee City, Yakima County, says he has been trying for years, without success, to develop an economical way to remove more of the lead from a fertilizer made from recycled hazardous waste from steel mills.

Some in the industry say federal standards would level the competition and allow Camp and his competitors to reduce the lead without cutting into each other's markets. And many experts believe a better labeling program would lead to market forces cleaning up the products.

Q: How could these fertilizers be better regulated?

A: Many experts - including one prominent advocate of the practice of recycling industrial wastes into fertilizers - say the first step is to require all ingredients to be listed by quantity on the label.

Another step some regulators would like to see is additional money and authority to perform independent chemical tests.

Finally, most scientists in the field say additional research is needed to determine acceptable levels of risk.

The federal government could set minimum standards to avoid what soils scientist John Mortvedt described as a nightmare of different requirements in labeling and transportation from state to state.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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