Nitrogen: Friend or Foe?

by Larry Losoncy, PhD

 Check with your nearest lawn and garden shop and you will discover that nitrogen makes things green. It also makes things grow. We do not see nitrogen but we benefit greatly from it, as any farmer will tell you. Lawn, garden and crop fertilizers have three essential elements that relate in various proportions to plant growth, root growth and fruit production. They are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. These elements account in large measure for the ever-increasing crop yields in the world today, right along with the beautiful green lawns and flowers that adorn our homes, streets, parks and cities.

Algae Bloom in St. John’s River, Florida

The wastewater industry will tell you, however, that these elements are no friends of wastewater. They are to be found in human excrement. In particular, nitrogen in the form of nitrates and phosphorous threaten water quality on a scale never before experienced. These elements promote growth of organisms in the water, leading to the growth of algae, death of fish, increase of disease-causing organisms, water too dangerous to drink and too  dangerous for swimming. When the quality of water deteriorates the health danger to humans goes up.

The Problem

Today the concerns being voiced are about nutrients in general but nitrates in particular. Soil absorbs nitrogen. Whatever grows in that soil utilizes nitrogen as nutrition.

But when there is too much going into the soil or the soil is sandy, porous or heavy with clay the nitrogen is not absorbed. Instead it seeps into the groundwater and then into the sea, rivers, lakes, shallow aquifers and wells.  In a nutshell, there is hell to pay.

We are a nation that has forever put our sanitary waste into the ground or into our water. The wisdom was that water and ground were perfectly capable of absorbing the waste and processing it back to harmless or even helpful quality levels, free of disease and useful to the environment. Of course the conventional wisdom did not take into account what happens when the population bunches up. Relying on the conventional wisdom got us to thousands of deaths from cholera in the drinking water, the Chesapeake Bay contamination, dangerous wells and warnings all over the country not to eat the fish we catch. There are limits to what Mother Nature can do. We are rapidly approaching those limits.

It is easy to notice populations massing by the millions in places like the Texas-Mexican border, Mexico City, New York City, Cairo, Chicago and other large cities around the world. It takes a little more stretching of our minds, however, to comprehend that more than half of the people in the United States are bunching up in the wrong places. After all, our landmass is so large. People live everywhere. How can this be? The answer is that 55% of our population lives within 50 miles of a coast. And the estimates are that the coastal population of our country increases by 2600 people a day. Like lemmings, we are going towards the oceans.

Fish Kill Due to Algae Bloom in Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge

Nobody in their right mind would dispute that something is wrong when rivers turn weird colors and smell to high heaven. But with nutrients this is not necessarily the case. Nutrient-laden rivers do not change colors or smell until after the damage has been done. Nutrients are not something we see. It is only when they have promoted algae growth or led to fish kill or set disease in motion that we actually realize something has gone very wrong.

The Solution

Solutions are limited to a very few choices. Some of the choices are not possible or practical.

One solution would be for the population to spread out and back away from coastal areas: not going to happen.

Another solution would be to find an easy and cheap way of getting these elements out of human sanitary waste: not going to happen. As matter of fact, it is not even clear how regulators would detect nutrients in the wastewater without frequent testing. Field testing of on-site systems will be expensive, especially since it would need to be done over and over, much like the testing of wells for disease-bearing organisms. In and of itself testing would not solve anything.

The move is already underway to have stricter restrictions on how much nitrogen would be allowed with on-site treatment systems as well as with central sewer treatment plants. Systems and processes that “denitrify” are beginning to appear. The costs are beginning to rise. The next hue and cry will be about phosphates.

There is not any debate within the industry about the harmful effects of nitrogen in water, whether groundwater or open water. There is some debate as to exactly what amount of nitrogen in wastewater is harmful, especially since there is so much variation in soil and water conditions receiving wastewater. With the most common form of on-site treatment, septic systems, there is the additional variation relating to weather conditions and groundwater levels. When the ground freezes or becomes saturated with rain the absorption rates of wastewater slows down or stops. Under ideal weather conditions the absorption rate is greater. In order to account for all conditions the acceptable levels of nitrates would need to be set so small that the expense of treatment would be much greater.

Another factor influencing the setting of standards is the fact that standards are set in response to political pressure, not necessarily in response to scientific research. The research about the effect of nutrients in wastewater as it relates to safe levels is still going on. What is safe and how to be sure is largely a question not yet answered. But already the demand is mounting, understandably, for stricter standards to protect human health by protecting the environment from which comes potable water.

Conclusions to be considered by regulators and those not on central sewage systems are not as much factual as they are trends to be observed. One trend is for more bad news about the damage various nutrients can cause if they are allowed to be discharged into the ground or water. Another trend is the likely significant increase in the costs of treating wastewater beginning very soon and continuing for years to come. A possible end result to the matter of regulations will be that many if not most jurisdictions will outlaw nutrients of any amount in wastewater, forcing a choice between on-site systems that do not discharge the waste and systems that treat it to a very high (and expensive) degree before discharging it.

The future in sanitation may belong to treatment systems that put nothing into the ground. In the meantime be prepared to hear more about nitrogen levels of waste going into the earth.


Larry Losoncy is the president of Clean Up America, Inc. The company manufactures and markets  The Sanitizer™ non-discharge, evaporative toilet.  To learn more about The Sanitizer™ please go to