Toxic Waste Widespread in Calif. Farm & Home Fertilizers

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, November 18, 1999

SACRAMENTO -- Californians are unknowingly spreading fertilizers made from toxic waste to farm fields and home gardens, according to state and independent tests. Even though these products may exceed state standards defining hazardous waste, the State of California is proposing new rules that would legalize the practice of "recycling" toxic waste.

At 10 a.m. Thursday at the Sierra Club, 1414 K Street in Sacramento, the California Public Interest Research Group and Environmental Working Group will release results of laboratory tests of Ironite, a widely-used home fertilizer sold throughout California. According to their report, As You Sow: Toxic Waste in California Farm and Home Fertilizers, every sample of Ironite was contaminated with lead and arsenic at two to four times the State of California hazardous waste threshold.

Fertilizer manufacturers are using California gardens and farms as dumping grounds for toxic waste," said Jonathan Kaplan, toxics director for CALPIRG.

Last year, Washington State officials warned consumers that ingestion of less than half a teaspoon of Ironite could be toxic to small children. Using too much Ironite for only two years could make a back yard as contaminated as a hazardous waste site. CALPIRG and EWG are urging retailers to stop selling Ironite until the state requires that the package carry a health warning.

"We see no justification for allowing products like Ironite on the market," said Bill Walker, California director of EWG. "At the very least, the label should inform consumers that the product contains high levels of persistent toxins."

Contamination of agricultural fertilizers may be even more widespread. State data analyzed by CALPIRG and EWG show that more than one-sixth of the commercial fertilizers tested by the state from 1994 to 1998 exceeded State of California hazardous waste thresholds. Spreading these contaminants on farm soils is a particular concern because lead, arsenic and other contaminants accumulate in soil for decades where they may be absorbed by food crops.

Each year, U.S. fertilizer manufacturers buy millions of pounds of toxic waste from industrial facilities to obtain low-cost plant nutrients such as zinc or iron. Industrial waste is often heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity.

In spite of these risks, the California Department of Food and Agriculture is proposing new regulations would allow toxic waste in fertilizer at more than four times the Washington State standard, and up to 85 times the amount allowed in some European countries.

"We know that contaminants in waste-derived fertilizers can get into the food chain," said Dr. Bill Liebhardt, a soil scientist at UC Davis. "Guessing the highest 'safe level' for these contaminants is a risky business ­ and if we're wrong, it may not be possible to clean up contaminated farm fields."