Nitrogen pollution can be controlledWASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board has released a report, “Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: An Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences and Management Options,” detailing environmental threats posed by “reactive nitrogen” and offering recommendations on how to manage it.
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board has released a report, “Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: An Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences and Management Options,” detailing environmental threats posed by “reactive nitrogen” and offering recommendations on how to manage it.
Plants and animals need this form of nitrogen to live, but when released into the environment in large quantities, it disrupts ecosystems and causes serious health problems.
Health, environmental threat
Noel Gurwick, senior scientist with the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says, “Nitrogen pollution — resulting from industrial agriculture and fossil fuel combustion — causes severe problems for human health and the environment. People experiencing health problems such as asthma and cardiac disease may not be aware that nitrogen pollution is exacerbating their condition.
“This new report from EPA’s Science Advisory Board is just the scientific community’s most recent call to act and avoid the worst consequences. A 2009 assessment found that we have surpassed the nitrogen needed to maintain safe conditions for human well-being, and we need to cut nitrogen pollution to one-fourth its current amount — starting now.
“Nitrogen pollution doesn’t recognize regulatory boundaries, and these boundaries interfere with effective action. The report calls for EPA and other agencies to break down those boundaries and manage nitrogen pollution from agriculture, industry and transportation more comprehensively. It also calls for additional monitoring to improve our understanding of nitrogen pollution. We need this improved coordination and monitoring, but what is critical is to start implementing the solutions we already know will reduce nitrogen pollution.
“The advisory board shows how we can achieve a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen over the next 10 to 20 years. The EPA, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and other executive branch agencies need to implement the report’s recommendations. And they need to do more. The steps the advisory board identifies are a good start, but the consequences of nitrogen pollution for the environment and human well-being are too great to wait 10 to 20 years for a modest reduction. With the right resources and authority from Congress, these agencies can help America’s farmers and industry solve this problem quickly.
“For example, Congress is beginning to debate the 2012 farm bill, which will provide opportunities to cut nitrogen pollution. Overall nitrogen emissions could be significantly reduced by the bill’s conservation measures, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program. Supporting programs like that one should be Congress’ highest priority, but unfortunately, many of these initiatives are threatened by budget cuts.
“At the same time, Congress is supporting programs that increase nitrogen pollution. Roughly two-thirds of farm bill funding for agriculture, about $13 billion annually, supports commodity crops, including corn, through programs that encourage farmers to grow these crops. Nitrogen fertilizer application rates are higher for corn than most other crops, and the increased production of corn — grown to meet the federally driven demand for biofuel and to produce processed food associated with an obesity epidemic — therefore contributes disproportionately to nitrogen pollution. At the direction of Congress, USDA shells out billions in taxpayer dollars to support agriculture programs that pollute our air, land and water.”
Editor’s Note: The Union of Concerned Scientists is a U.S.-based nonprofit science advocacy group.