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August 12, 2011 

EPA Science Advisory Board to Release Five-Year Report Recommending Federal Action to Curb Nitrogen Pollution

Report Expected to be Released Next Week

A team of science advisors to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to release a long-awaited report detailing the environmental threat posed by nitrogen pollution in the United States early next week. Largely caused by industrial agriculture and burning fossil fuels, nitrogen pollution contaminates drinking water, kills millions of fish, damages soil, and creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that scientists recently predicted would grow this summer to the size of the state of New Jersey.

The new report, “Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: an Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences, and Management Options,” is the result of a five-year EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) project that investigated the sources and risks of “reactive nitrogen.” Plants and animals need this form of nitrogen to live, but when released into the environment in large quantities, it severely damages ecosystems and causes serious health problems. The report will recommend ways to significantly reduce this pollution.

Industrial agricultural practices, especially poorly managed livestock manure and excess fertilizer use, are the major culprit, accounting for 65 percent of human-caused nitrogen pollution nationally. Vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plant emissions are other significant sources, but EPA regulations and improved pollution-control technologies have reduced their contribution to approximately 20 percent of overall U.S. nitrogen emissions.

In dollar terms, the cost of nitrogen pollution is considerable. An April European Nitrogen Assessment, for example, concluded that nitrogen pollution costs Europe $100 billion to $457 billion in U.S. dollars annually.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recommends new federal agriculture policies that could help farmers cut excess nitrogen even more dramatically than what the SAB report is likely to recommend. UCS reports, “CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (2008) and “Raising the Steaks: Global Warming and Pasture-Raised Beef Production in the United States” (2011), found that shifting government incentives from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) to pasture-based livestock systems can decrease nitrogen emissions resulting from livestock production. “No Sure Fix” (2009) recommends encouraging broader adoption of farming systems that rely more on crop rotation (including winter cover crops), replacing large autumn chemical fertilizer applications with composted manure or slow-release fertilizer, and using classical breeding to develop plants that use nitrogen more efficiently to significantly reduce nitrogen pollution.

Read more about reactive nitrogen here.


The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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