Toxic Industrial Waste Now Used as Fertilizer
The U.S. government has a new strategy to improve farming: spread a chalky substance from coal-fired power plants on farmers fields to "loosen and fertilize" the soil. The substance is produced by power plant scrubbers that remove sulfur dioxide from plant emissions, that would otherwise lead to acid rain. The substance is a synthetic form of mineral gypsum that also contains mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assures us that these toxic metals only occur in small amounts, but some point out that too little is known about how the substance affects the crop or human health. Coal-fired plants currently produce 50% of the power in the United States, and are considered a major source of environmental pollution.
Each year the coal-fired power industry produces more than 125 million tons of coal ash and sludge waste, including the byproduct FGD gypsum (flue gas desulfurization gypsum). The EPA and the US Department of Agriculture are currently working on a plan to determine "beneficial waste uses" in order to find cost effective ways to manage industrial byproducts.
This situation sounds familiar to those aware of the history of water fluoridation. When fluoride, an industrial byproduct of the aluminum industry, was determined too costly for cleanup and disposal, the US government added it to the public water supply instead. With little scientific support for its safety and health benefits, and a growing campaign against water fluoridation, the issue continues to be a hot topic more than 60 years after it was first introduced.
Last year, a spill from a coal ash pond in Knoxville, TN flooded over 300 homes with ash and water, killed fish in the process, and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. It stands to reason that if a coal waste accidental spill is harmful, so is the willful spreading of coal ash onto fields year after year. The toxins in the spill may be more concentrated than the substance being spread on the farmland, but toxins in soil will likely build up over time. This may not be an immediate problem in our generation, but could lead to serious contamination problems for future generations.
FGD gypsum is not actually new to our food supply; farmers' use of the substance has more than tripled in the past six years, from approximately 78,000 tons spread on fields in 2002, to almost 279,000 tons in 2008, according to the American Coal Ash Association. The annual production of coal ash is expected to double in the coming years, thanks to more coal-fired power plants coming online and more scrubbers being added to comply with EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule and other air quality requirements.
The problem of what to do with this waste is growing significantly, leading to "creative" thinking on the part of the coal power industry and the government who is aggressively lobbied by them. In 2008, nearly 18 million tons of FGD gypsum was put to "beneficial use" in the United States by adding it to drywall. It has also been used as a filler in some foods and toothpaste!
If the coal industry were prevented from selling FGD gypsum, it could lose $5-10 billion a year in revenue, and would also have to pay to store the substance, creating a huge incentive to keep adding FGD gypsum to foods and other substances.
How can you avoid produce grown in this "beneficial" soil? Organic foods aren't a safe haven. FGD gypsum may be trickling into organic farming, because it is not considered a petroleum-based soil additive, which is forbidden in organic farming - so even organic farmers are legally allowed to add toxic metals to your food.
So what is the real solution to this problem? First, it requires a slight consciousness shift, as you realize that the person who cares most about your health is YOU - not a government agency or lobbying corporation. Instead of relying on external sources to make your health decisions for you, regain control by choosing local foods first and knowing your grower. When you meet the people growing your food, they will see you as a real human who eats the food, not just a consumer. You can ask them questions and get honest answers, and they will be more likely to farm with your interests at heart. Feeling compelled to save the world? Building a grassroots movement to restrict FGD gypsum from our soil could help to protect everyone, but you can start now by protecting yourself and spreading the word today.