The main environmental problem associated with fertilizer use is contamination of water with nitrates and phosphates.

The nitrogen from fertilizers and manures are eventually converted by bacteria in the soil to nitrates. These nitrates can be leached into the groundwater or be washed out of the soil surface into streams and rivers. High nitrate levels in drinking water are considered to be dangerous to human health.

Phosphorus cannot be readily washed out of the soil, but is bound to soil particles and moves together with them. Phosphorus can therefore be washed into surface waters together with the soil that is being eroded. The phosphorus is not considered to be dangerous, but it stimulates the growth of algae in slow moving water. These algae eventually die and decompose, removing the oxygen from the water causing fish kills. This process is called eutrophication.

It is important to remember that there are a number of sources of these pollutants including industrial waste, sewerage disposal, detergents and manures. The problem of high nitrate levels in groundwater was recorded as early as 1860, long before fertilizer use became commonplace.

Recent research shows that the main sources of nitrates in groundwater are crop residues and organic matter that decompose and produce nitrates at time when crops cannot make use of them.


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