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Tuesday, September 16, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fertilizer Industry To Pay For Study Of Heavy Metals -- Group Will Look At Health Risks In $12 Billion-A-Year Industry

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

ATLANTA - The trade group for the nation's fertilizer producers said today that it would spend more than $1 million for a one- to two-year study of potential health risks from heavy metals in some fertilizer products.

Gary Myers, president of The Fertilizer Institute, said the study would help address public concerns and possible new regulations, as well as weed out bad material from products in the $12 billion-a-year U.S. industry.

"We're looking at the health risk of all our products, similar to what EPA does, so we can comment intelligently on rule-making," Myers said in an interview after a meeting of the institute's directors.

He said the study would start in two or three weeks with sampling of fertilizer products across the nation.

"Once the model is set up, the Canadians could do it, too, or the United Nations could do it all over the world if they wanted," Myers said.

The institute yesterday hired a consultant in a closed-door meeting and laid plans to hire scientists and other experts. Ron Phillips, vice president for public affairs, said the board allotted $1 million for the initial phase of the project.

The institute's examination of the issue came in response to public concerns that arose from a Seattle Times series on fertilizer. The series showed how many manufacturing industries are disposing of hazardous byproducts, including possible carcinogens and radioactive material, by using them in fertilizer that's spread on farmland.

Myers said the industry study would be much broader than one the California Department of Food and Agriculture plans to release soon. The California study, the first of its kind in the nation, focuses on only three toxic metals, lead, cadmium and arsenic, and applies to only California's unique soils and crops.

Canada and some European countries have standards and testing programs for heavy metals in fertilizer and soil amendments, but the United States does not. In this country, the fertilizer industry is one of the few that exist without federal regulation, and it wants to stay that way.

Farmers don't have any way of knowing exactly what they're spreading because fertilizer labels need list only beneficial nutrients. Material data safety sheets list only elements above 1 percent of content. Heavy metals can be hazardous in much smaller amounts.

A group of state regulators is working on a model law to expand traditional fertilizer labels to include all ingredients, including heavy metals. Such a law would have to be considered state by state.

Myers said he would wait to see the states' label proposal before deciding whether to favor or oppose it. He said an expanded label would add to farmers' costs, partly because it would require additional product testing.

Myers emphasized the industry itself works for safe and abundant food, and needs better information about heavy metals and health risks.

"As far as we know, there's never been a health impact," he said. "But we need to make sure that everything is safe. We've always been eager to know what's going on. We want to know, too.

"Basically we're a commodity industry and we're used all over the world. There are no secrets here."

The media were not allowed to attend the task-force meetings, or The Fertilizer Institute board meeting where these topics were discussed.

Myers said the consultant, Environ Inc., of Arlington, Va., will work with universities and other experts, starting with the highest volume products, and later including the recycled industrial wastes used in smaller volumes, usually for micronutrients.

Myers said less than 4 percent of fertilizer has a micronutrient added to it, and one half of 1 percent comes from a hazardous-waste source.

There is also a potential problem, however, with cadmium or radioactive traces in traditional rock phosphate. The world's cleanest phosphate supplies are being depleted.

Home and garden fertilizers are a much smaller part of the big picture, and Phillips said they will be studied indirectly.

"Garden fertilizer won't be tested, but it is a mix of things that will be tested," he said.

The Fertilizer Institute represents the nation's producers, manufacturers, retailers, brokers and equipment manufacturers.

The U.S. trade group held meetings in Atlanta this week during the World Fertilizer Conference, an annual deal-making event attended by more than 1,000 business people at the highest levels.

In Washington, Gov. Gary Locke has asked for national risk-based standards. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, is crafting legislation.

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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