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Thursday, August 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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First Step Toward Labeling Toxins In Fertilizer -- Industry, Regulators To Address Use Of Waste

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Fertilizer regulators from most of the 50 states yesterday took their first step toward more complete disclosure of fertilizer ingredients for users.

The national Association of American Plant Food Control Officials, meeting in Providence, named a panel of regulators and fertilizer executives to craft a new label disclosing the "toxic tag-alongs" in some products.

A Seattle Times series last month disclosed the problem of toxin-laced industrial waste being recycled into fertilizers to avoid expensive disposal charges.

Now, fertilizer labels list only the beneficial, advertised ingredients such as nitrogen. Users don't have any way of knowing exactly what else is in the bag or truckload.

"The time has come when all the ingredients have to be listed," George Latimer, Texas state chemist who heads the new panel, told the association.

But other regulators and industry executives who joined the panel said too much detail would be "alarmist" and confusing. They said a new fertilizer label ought to merely say the product meets safety standards.

The problem is, however, there are no such safety standards in this country. While Canada, Australia and many European countries have set limits on toxic metals in fertilizer, the United States has not.

David Terry, Kentucky's chief fertilizer regulator, called for fast action yesterday on a specific labeling plan. He said that would help respond to pressure many of the regulators are feeling in their home states because of the disclosures about industrial recycling in fertilizer.

Latimer said the group will propose a new label within six weeks.

"It doesn't matter what the industry thinks - there is going to be a label statement," he said.

Even if Latimer succeeds, it would take at least two years for any proposal to be adopted in the group's model code. The code is merely advisory, and state legislatures would have to adopt it.

Issue: how much to tell public

"I think it's clear to everyone that we have to address the heavy-metal issue in some way," said Serge Brunner, vice president of Espoma of Millville, N.J. Espoma is an organic-fertilizer company with sales in 26 states - and virtually no heavy metals in its products.

But some speakers warned that "virtually none" might seem like too much if all the toxic metals have to be listed on the labels, even at natural background levels.

Latimer insisted the public could figure it out.

Another industry panelist said the label might be too small for all the unadvertised ingredients.

"There are only so many square inches we can print things on," said Richard Camp, president of Bay Zinc of Moxee City, Yakima County. "If we get down to ridiculously low levels of parts per million heavy metals, there will not be enough space to print all the things we would have to."

Camp makes fertilizer out of federally designated hazardous waste from steel mills under an exemption to the hazardous-waste laws. His products are high in lead - not disclosed on the label - but he said it's spread so thinly it's safe.

"Nobody's gotten sick, and there have been no problems with the products," Camp said. "The products are safe."

However, some of Camp's competitors say his fertilizer has too much lead, and they say farmers don't know what they're getting. A similar material, apparently over-applied in Georgia, killed more than 1,000 acres of peanuts destined for human consumption.

Attention forces faster action

The fertilizer regulators said they have known for years that some fertilizers, particularly those made from recycled industrial wastes, contain small levels of possible carcinogens, which may build up in soil and plants. But no health effects have been proved.

Most traditional fertilizers have levels widely viewed as safe. And the regulators had promised to develop guidelines on industrial byproducts by 1998.

Now they say wider public knowledge of the practice is leading to demands for faster change in testing, labeling and other regulations.

"I think we should look at the science before we start doing a whole lot of labeling that will do the industry no good and provide a disservice to the consumer," Vincent Snyder Jr. of the home and garden giant Scott Co. told the regulators.

Some states act on their own

California, Texas, New Jersey and Washington are independently considering improved labels and other changes.

No state has a full-labeling law. And Canada doesn't require disclosure of unadvertised ingredients, either, because every product on the market is presumed to meet the safety standards that Canada has.

The federal government has traditionally kept its hands off fertilizer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, recently started to study the gaps in fertilizer regulation. They were reacting to newspaper articles and public concern.

But not a single federal official attended the three-day regulators' convention here, and only one was invited as a speaker, strictly limiting his remarks to sewage sludge.

About 50 state officials and 40 industry officials, including its top lobbyist, attended the convention.

Duff Wilson's phone message number is 206-464-2288. His e-mail address is: dwil-new@seatimes.com

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

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