Toxic Wastes 'Recycled' as Fertilizer Threaten U.S. Farms and Food Supply

Washington, D.C., March 1998 -- Under the guise of 'recycling,' millions of pounds of toxic waste are shipped each year from polluting industries to fertilizer manufacturers and farmers, who used toxic waste laden with dioxin, lead, mercury and other hazardous chemicals as raw material for fertilizers applied to U.S. farmland.

According to an analysis of federal and state data released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), between 1990 and 1995 more than 450 fertilizer companies or farms in 38 states received shipments of toxic waste totaling more than 270 million pounds.

EWG's report, Factory Farming: Toxic Waste and Fertilizer in the United States, lists, for each state, the polluting industries that shipped the most such waste and the fertilizer companies that received the most. Companies in California received the most waste, followed by Nebraska, New Jersey, Washington, and Georgia.

"Not only does the EPA allow these chemicals to be used in the fertilizers that go on our crops, in most states farmers and consumers don't even have the right to know what's being used," said study author, Richard Wiles.

Because of loopholes in the federal toxics laws -- most notably, the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) -- EWG found that it is impossible to account for all uses of the toxic waste shipped to fertilizer companies. "This is a regulatory system designed by Mr. Magoo," said Ken Cook, president of the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. Some facilities that received the waste only make fertilizer, but others produce a variety of inorganic chemicals.

However, in a series of investigative articles, The Seattle Times has documented the nationwide use of cadmium, lead, arsenic, dioxins, radionuclides and other hazardous waste in fertilizer. Tests by the State of Washington found that some fertilizers contained very high levels of dioxin -- 100 times higher, in fact than the level allowed for treated Superfund sites in the state.

In response to The Seattle Times investigation, states are scrambling to plug regulatory loopholes. Washington, California, Idaho, New Jersey, North Dakota, Maryland, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas have laws or regulations in the works to limit toxic waste in fertilizer. Most of the proposals would still not provide consumers with as much information or put the burden on fertilizer companies to prove that their products are safe.

"Anyone who uses fertilizer has the right to know what is in it, and whether it was made from toxic waste," added Ken Cook, "But beyond this basic public right to know, state and federal health officials must protect farms, farm families and our food supply from toxic chemical contamination."

Factory Farming: Toxic Waste and Fertilizer in the United States, 1990-1995 is available on the Internet at

Environmental Working Group, a project of the Tides Center, is a nonprofit research organization with offices in Washington, DC and San Francisco.

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