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Explaining nutrient pollution

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, nutrient pollution is one of the country's most challenging, costly and widespread environmental problems. Caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorous in the air and water, nutrient pollution is a significant contributor to air and water pollution that has impacted rivers, lakes, streams, bays, and coastal waters for several decades.

As devastating as nutrient pollution is, many people are unfamiliar with it, making it even more difficult to prevent. Gaining a greater understanding of nutrient pollution and its effects on the planet is a great first step toward addressing the problem.

Role of nitrogen and phosphorous

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems that support the growth of algae and aquatic plants. Algae and plants provide food and habitat for sea creatures, including fish and smaller organisms that live in the water.

Effects of excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous

Though nitrogen and phosphorous are natural parts of the ecosystem, too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the environment can have a dramatic and negative impact on the planet and the creatures that populate it. When there is too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, algae grows faster, and any significant increase in algae affects water quality while jeopardizing food resources and habitats. Large algae growths are known as algal blooms, and these blooms can greatly reduce and even eliminate oxygen in the water. That's significant, as fish and other marine life need that oxygen to survive. But algal blooms can affect humans as well, as some blooms produce toxins and bacterial growth that can harm humans if they come into contact with polluted water or consume tainted fish. Algal blooms can also affect drinking water, which can become contaminated, harming anyone unfortunate enough to consume it.

The EPA notes that even low levels of nutrient pollution in ground water, which is the source of drinking water for millions of people, can be harmful. Infants are especially vulnerable to nitrates, a nitrogen-based compound that can be found in ground water tainted by nutrient pollution. Excess  nitrogen in the atmosphere is not just harmful to water but air as well. When excess nitrogen seeps into the atmosphere, pollutants such as ammonia and ozone can result, and these pollutants can make it difficult to breathe, see and  grow plants.

Sources of excess nitrogen and phosphorous

Humans cause much of the planet's nutrient pollution. The use of fossil fuels is to power automobiles, drive industry and generate power has increased the amount of nitrogen in the air. Inadequate sewage and septic systems are another source of nutrient pollution. Such systems are responsible for treating substantial amounts of waste, but sewage and septic systems that are not operating properly will not remove enough nitrogen and phosphorous, which then finds its way into nearby waterways.

Products used around the home may also contribute to nutrient pollution. If fertilizers are applied excessively and/or yard and pet waste are not disposed of properly, this may increase the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous into local waterways. Certain household cleaners, including some soaps and detergents, also must be used appropriately to reduce the chances that they contribute to nutrient pollution.

Curbing nutrient pollution

Human behavior is a key contributor to nutrient pollution, so altering certain behaviors and being more mindful of your habits and the products you use is a great way to start taking action in an effort to curb nutrient pollution. Something as simple as choosing phosphate-free detergents, soaps and household cleaners can go a long way toward reducing nutrient pollution. Another easy step to reduce nutrient pollution is to keep pets away from waterways where pet waste can contribute to water pollution that affects both marine life and local water supplies. Visit www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/what-you-can-do to learn more about the role you can play in reducing nutrient pollution.