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Researchers discover fertilizer is linked to air pollution

Unused fertilizer escapes into the air and turns into a pollutant. Photo taken on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. (KBAK/KBFX)

Researchers at UC Davis have discovered fertilizer is a big contributor to California air pollution.

"This is sort of a new discovery. They found it by flying aircraft with sensitive instruments over the valley and they are detecting way more NoX, nitrogen oxide, than they thought was there," said Tom Frantz, an almond farmer and air quality activist.

Nitrogen is a common nutrient found in soil fertilizer and any nitrogen not eaten by the plants goes unused and seeps into the ground or into the air. As researchers discovered at UC Davis, when nitrogen escapes into the air, it turns into nitrous oxide, or NoX, which is a pollutant.

"The number one pollutant is NoX and the number one source, 80 percent of it, is mobile sources...now there's another 40 percent of it and it's agriculture," said Frantz.

Frantz says he uses about 200 pounds of nitrogen a year for his 36 acres of farmland, and occasionally uses an organic fertilizer, which has less nitrogen in it. However, he says this organic fertilizer is almost double the cost. If growers have to increase fertilizer costs, they may have to bump up food prices, which could translate to more expensive grocery trips.

Already, farmers are doing what they to avoid overusing fertilizer.

"Their buying too much, they don't want to do that because they would be losing money so they make sure they are using the fertilizer to the best of their ability," said Glenn Fankhauser, Agricultural Commissioner Sealer.

However, Fankhauser says things may get a little tougher for growers if the state decides to regulate fertilizer usage.

"This is a worry for farmers that eventually if they are able to nail down that farming activities are a source of pollution there is going to be state regulations that are going to make it harder and harder for them to do business," said Fankhauser.

Regardless, farmers like Frantz say they will do what they can to keep the air clean.

"Farmers, in general, are good environmentalists. They understand a healthy environment is critical for crops. They want their food to be healthy and of course, they want the air that they breathe and everyone else breathes to be healthy, so I think we will accept the challenge and do our best on this," said Frantz.

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