Researchers at the British Geological Survey say Nitrate fertilisers are a pollution timebomb that could have severe global-scale consequences for rivers, water supplies, human health and the economy.
They say huge quantities of nitrate chemicals from farm fertilisers are polluting the rocks beneath our feet, a study says over time the nitrate will be released from the rocks into rivers via springs. That will cause toxic algal blooms and fish deaths, and will cost industry and consumers billions of pounds a year in extra water treatment.
In a paper in Nature Communications, the scientists from BGS and Lancaster University estimate that up to 180 million tonnes of nitrate are stored in rocks worldwide – perhaps twice the amount stored in soils. They say this is the first global estimate of the amount of nitrate trapped between the soil layer and the water-bearing aquifers below. They warn that over time the nitrate will inevitably slowly seep into the aquifers.
The EU is trying to clamp down on careless application of nitrates but farmers say the fertilisers are vital for agricultural productivity.
The UK government has said all EU environmental laws will be brought into British law after Brexit. But a legal taskforce set up by the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) to examine the risks of Brexit identified nitrate pollution as an example of the protections that will be at risk when European laws are rolled over into domestic legislation in 2019.