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New tool developed to trace contaminants in mineral phosphate fertilisers

Posted: 21 May 2024 | | No comments yet

The new study analyses contaminants in global phosphate fertilisers and the impact of such contaminants on soil, water resources and food supply.

New tool developed to trace contaminants in mineral phosphate fertilisers

An international team of scientists has uncovered toxic metals in mineral phosphate fertilisers worldwide by using a new tool to identify the spread and impact of such contaminants on soil, water resources and food supply.

“While mineral phosphate fertilisers are critical to boost global sustainable agriculture and food security, we found high levels of toxic metals in many fertilisers worldwide,” said Avner Vengosh, Chair of the Earth and Climate Sciences division at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Our study developed a new method to identify sources and impacts of these metals on the environment.” Those metals included cadmium, uranium, arsenic, vanadium and chromium.

Use of mineral fertiliser – synthetic or naturally occurring substances with essential nutrients needed for plant growth – has helped to boost sustainable crop yields worldwide. But, until recently, its contamination with toxic metals has not been systematically evaluated. This new study analyses global phosphate fertilisers from major phosphate-mining countries.

“We measured strontium isotopes in both phosphate rocks and fertilisers generated from those rocks to show how fertilisers’ isotope ‘fingerprint’ matches their original source,” said Robert Hill, the study’s lead author and a PhD student at Duke University.

Isotopes are variations of an element, in this case strontium. Chemical analysis of each fertiliser shows a unique isotope mix that matches phosphate rocks from where it was sourced.

“Given variations of strontium isotopes in global phosphate rocks, we have established a unique tool to detect fertilisers’ potential impact worldwide,” Hill said.

To learn whether strontium isotopes are a reliable indicator of trace elements in fertiliser worldwide, researchers analysed 76 phosphate rocks, the main source of phosphate fertilisers, and 40 fertilisers from major phosphate rock-producing regions, including the western US, China, India, North Africa and the Middle East. Researchers collected samples from mines, commercial sources and Tidewater Research Station, an experimental field in North Carolina. The research team published its findings on 9 May 2024 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Metals found in soil and groundwater come from both naturally occurring and human-made sources.

“Strontium isotopes essentially are a ‘fingerprint’ that can reveal contamination in groundwater and soil worldwide,” said Vengosh. His research team has also used strontium isotopes to trace environmental contamination in landfill leaching, coal mining, coal ash, fracking fluids and groundwater that is pulled to the surface with  oil and natural gas extraction.

“The isotope is a proxy to identify the source of contamination,” Vengosh said. “Without this tool, it is difficult to identify, contain and remediate contamination linked to fertiliser.”

Fertilisers in the study showed different concentrations of trace elements, with higher levels observed in fertilisers from the US and the Middle East compared to those from China and India. As a result, the researchers conclude that  phosphate fertilisers from the US and the Middle East will have a greater impact on soil quality due to their higher concentrations of uranium, cadmium and chromium as compared to fertilisers from China and India, which have higher concentrations of arsenic.

The National Science Foundation funded this study. (EAR-2305946)

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