Ever Heard of Nutrient Pollution?

In a season when throngs of people take to rivers, lakes, and oceans for some boating, fishing, and other on-the-water fun, it makes sense to draw attention to the importance of clean water. Since August marks National Water Quality Month, let’s dive into what the EPA calls one of America's most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems—nutrient pollution (namely, excess nitrogen and phosphorus).

Both nitrogen and phosphorus are critical for plant and animal growth and nourishment, but too much of a good thing can be bad.

Found abundant naturally in the environment, nitrogen also finds its ways into the water, land, and air through chemical fertilizers, sewage, and from burning fossil fuels, such as gasoline and coal. When excess nitrogen, as nitrate, ends up in tap water, it can harm infants and young livestock by restricting oxygen transport in their bloodstream.

Next up, phosphorus. As a naturally occurring mineral found in foods (such as seafood, beans, and dairy), phosphorus helps your body function properly. It builds strong bones, filters out kidney waste, and repairs tissue and cells. (It’s also necessary for plant growth—more on this later.)

Your body needs phosphorus—but in safe levels. Too much phosphorus can be harmful, especially for people with kidney disease. Excess phosphorus can also trigger bone loss and lead to serious conditions like heart disease.

In contrast, phosphate is a chemical derivative of phosphorus that manufacturers often add to processed foods, not for nutritional benefits but to boost the food’s flavor. In addition, phosphates often show up in other consumer products, most notably in detergents, soaps, and household cleaners. After many states banned phosphate laundry detergents, manufacturers voluntarily stopped producing it around 1994. But that still leaves other high-phosphate products on the market. To avoid phosphates and other harmful ingredients in cleaning products, look for the EPA Safer Choice label, or learn more at the Safer Choice website. And learn more about how phosphates impact the environment, human health, and our economy.

In the right amount, both nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants in aquatic ecosystems. In turn, this provides food and habitat for fish and other organisms. However, high nutrient levels can jeopardize water quality by fueling overgrowth of algae-—or algal blooms—which can have dire consequences. Known as “eutrophication,” massive algal blooms deplete the water of oxygen. The result? Fish and other aquatic organisms that require oxygen to live will either leave the affected area in favor of more oxygen-rich waters or die.

Want to do your part in keeping our water clean? Check out these tips from the EPA.


Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Eating Well, USA Today Go Escape, Good Housekeeping, YES! Magazine, and dozens more. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.