‘Friend-turned-foe’ nitrogen pollution harming environment and human health

A scientist has revealed that nitrogen pollution from fertilizers and other sources has become a major environmental problem that threatens human health and welfare in multiple ways.

Billions of people owe their lives to nitrogen fertilizers – a pillar of the fabled Green Revolution in agriculture that averted global famine in the 20th century- but according to Alan Townsend it can have detrimental affect on health and environment.

“It”s been said that nitrogen pollution is the biggest environmental disaster that nobody has heard of,” said Townsend.

Townsend, an authority on how human activity has changed the natural cycling of nitrogen to create a friend-turned-foe dilemma, called for greater public awareness of nitrogen pollution and concerted global action to control it.

“Awareness has grown, but nitrogen pollution remains such a little-recognized environmental problem because it lacks the visibility of other kinds of pollution,” said Townsend.

“People can see an oil slick on the ocean, but hundreds of tons of nitrogen spill invisibly into the soil, water and air every day from farms, smokestacks and automobile tailpipes. But the impact is there — unhealthy air, unsafe drinking water, dead zones in the ocean, degraded ecosystems and implications for climate change. But people don”t see the nitrogen spilling out, so it is difficult to connect the problems to their source,” added Townsend.

The concern focuses on so-called “reactive” nitrogen. Air contains about 78 percent nitrogen. But this nitrogen is unreactive or “inert,” and plants can’t use the gas as a nutrient.

“A single atom of reactive nitrogen can contribute to air pollution, climate change, ecosystem degradation and several human health concerns,” said Townsend, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Damage to the ecosystem — a biological community interacting with its nonliving environment — includes water pollution and reduced biological diversity, including the loss of certain plant species.

The result was presented at the 242nd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) recently.

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