Out of the lead frying pan and into the phosphate fire

A recent NYT post reports that adding fish meal to lead-contaminated soils will cause the lead to bind to phosphate found in fish bones.  As the article explains, this chemical reaction results in the formation of pyromorphite, “a crystalline mineral that will not harm anyone even if consumed.”

Given my concerns about excessive phosphate loading in urban soils, I contacted Dr. Rich Koenig, an urban soil scientist and chair of WSU’s Crop and Soil Science department.  I wondered, at least, if the article should have directed people to have a soil test done first to determine how much phosphate was already in the soil before adding more.

Dr. Koenig was likewise concerned that the application rate of fish meal was probably far higher than what plants would require, thus increasing the risk of phosphorus leaching and runoff. He also referred my question to Dr. Jim Harsh, a soil chemist in his department familiar with the process described in the article.

And as Dr. Harsh pointed out, it’s important to make lead less susceptible to uptake by people and other animals exposed to contaminated soils.  However, he’s unconvinced that phosphate is the best choice; in fact, research by Dr. Sally Brown (cited in the NYT article) and others (including Dr. Harsh) have found that compost containing iron is also able to bind and immobilize lead.  The advantage of high iron compost is that iron will not leach into nearby waterways, nor cause the same kinds of plant toxicity problems, as phosphate can.

Thanks to both Dr. Koenig and Dr. Harsh for their quick and informative responses on this topic.

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

2 thoughts on “Out of the lead frying pan and into the phosphate fire”

  1. Joe, I don’t think so. It seems to be “ongoing research” so I don’t think there are practical applications quite yet. That being said, it would be interesting if people were to try this method on their landscapes, taking soil samples before and months after for lead assessment.

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