Scientists Develop New Geochemical 'fingerprint' to Trace Contaminants in Fertilizer

May 20, 2024

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

"While mineral  fertilizers are critical to boost global sustainable agriculture and , we found high levels of  in many fertilizers 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 fertilizer—synthetic or naturally occurring substances with  needed for —has helped boost sustainable crop yields worldwide. But until recently, its contamination with toxic metals has not been systematically evaluated. This new study analyzes global phosphate fertilizers from major phosphate-mining countries.

"We measured strontium isotopes in both phosphate rocks and fertilizers generated from those rocks to show how fertilizers' isotope 'fingerprint' matches their original source," said Robert Hill, the study's lead author and a Ph.D. student at Duke University.

Isotopes are variations of an element, in this case strontium. Chemical analysis of each fertilizer 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 fertilizers' potential impact worldwide," Hill said.

To learn whether strontium isotopes are a reliable indicator of trace elements in fertilizer worldwide, researchers analyzed 76 phosphate rocks, the main source of phosphate fertilizers, and 40 fertilizers from major phosphate rock-producing regions including the western United States, 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  to trace environmental contamination in landfill leaching, , coal ash, fracking fluids, and groundwater that is pulled to the surface with oil and natural gas extraction.

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