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Summit on "Environmental Disaster No One's Heard Of" in CO This Week

May 17, 2010

BOULDER, Colo. - Scientists call it the biggest environmental disaster no one's heard of, and they are gathering this week in Colorado to try to change that. Nitrogen pollution from fertilizers and other sources can be detrimental to both water and air quality, experts say, leading to major health and environmental problems ranging from the onset of Alzheimers to the notorious "dead zones" at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

University of Colorado professor Alan Townsend with CU's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research says this meeting aims to create the first national nitrogen assessment.

"On one hand, we depend on fertilizer to grow our crops, and one of the key ingredients in that fertilizer is nitrogen. On the other hand, in general the world tends to use too much of it and use it too inefficiently."

With all the focus on the oil spill in the Gulf, Townsend points out that the scope of the nitrogen problem is even greater - and that's important to realize.

"There's really essentially a nitrogen spill everyday. That's the core of the problem."

Nitrogen pollution has had documented impacts on Colorado's alpine lakes, and Townsend adds that nitrogen is a key component in those "ozone alert" days that Coloradans are familiar with.

"Nitrogen that we end up emitting to the atmosphere through driving cars or running factories or putting fertilizers on fields is one of the key ingredients in making that ozone happen."

The state's new Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act will go a long way toward cutting the pollution from coal-power plants, Townsend says, but the problem is so far-reaching that a larger, coordinated effort is needed.

The nitrogen assessment meeting will be held 8 a.m.-5 p.m. May 18-20 at Millennium Harvest House, 1345 28th St., Boulder.

More information is available at

Eric Mack, Public News Service - CO