Nitrate-contaminated drinking water can cause reduced blood function, cancer and endemic goitres - Seeker's Thoughts

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Nitrate-contaminated drinking water can cause reduced blood function, cancer and endemic goitres

The Consequences of Nitrogen Pollution

Nitrogen is essential to all life on earth as it forms an important component of life-building and propagating biochemical molecules like proteins. 

But overuse in agriculture in the form of fertilisers and other fields are the deadly cause of pollution.

Excess nitrogen pollution has tremendous consequences on humans and the environment.

In the form of nitrous oxide, for example, it is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality and the ozone layer.

Altogether, humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems, making nitrogen one of the most pollution issues facing humanity.

Excessive use of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in India and its impact

It is a sensitive issue given that India’s food self-sufficiency owes a lot to the use of urea that ensured high yields. But society conservation nature, a coalition of more than 120 scientists with varied expertise, took a call to launch an in-depth scientific probe in 2006 with setting up of a specialized group called the Indian Nitrogen Group.

They study not just the nitrogen being used for agricultural processes but also its increasing emissions from the transport boom in the country.

Annual Frontier Report 2019 Published by the United Nation (UN)

The annual Frontier Report 2019 published by the United Nations, has included a chapter on nitrogen pollution in its latest edition. The report was released by the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi.

According to the report pollution caused by reactive forms of nitrogen is now being recognized as a grave environmental concern on a global level. 

 Increasing demand in livestock, agriculture, transport, industry and energy sector has led to sharp growth of the levels of reactive nitrogen- ammonia, nitrate, nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O) in ecosystem.
The report claims that the total annual cost of nitrogen pollution to eco system and healthcare services in the world is around 340$ billion. The report also warns that scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles.

Nitrogen Pollution Impacts- Algae Blooms

Nitrogen makes plants grow. When too much nitrogen flows to bays, fast-growing plants out-compete and kill slower beneficial plants. Decaying plants don’t produce oxygen, which kills fish and other marine life. Algae blooms such as brown tide, rust tide, and the macro-algae called Ulva, (AKA Sea lettuce).

Poisonous for people and wildlife

The red tide algae Alexandrium produces a powerful neurotoxin that accumulates in filter feeding shellfish that can poison the people or wildlife that eat them. Toxic algae are increasingly occurring in long island’s bays and harbours.

Why nitrogen is an essential nutrient?

Nitrogen, which is a vital macronutrient for most plants, is the most abundant element in the atmosphere; A little over 78% of dry air on Earth is nitrogen. But atmospheric nitrogen, or dinitrogen, is uncreative and cannot be utilized by plants directly.

Until the beginning of the 20th century farmers depended on a natural process called nitrogen fixation for the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into reactive nitrogen in the soil: nitrogen-fixing bacteria like rhizobia live symbiotically with leguminous plants, providing nitrogen to the plant and soil in the form of reactive compounds like ammonia and nitrate.

But the natural nitrogen cycle was inadequate to feed the growing population. Scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch solved this problem by producing ammonia by combining atmosphere nitrogen with hydrogen gas at high temperature and pressure- known as the Haber-Bosch process. 

The green revolution which was instrumental in establishing food security in the developing countries in the 1960s was driven by artificial nitrogen-fixation. Today, about half of the world’s population depends on this process for its nutrition.

Effects on health

According to the World Health Organization, nitrate-contaminated drinking water can cause reduced blood function, cancer and endemic goitres. Surplus inputs of nitrogen compounds have been found to cause soil acidification. The lowering Ph, as a result of the acidification, can lead to nutrient disorders and increased toxicity in plants. It may also affect natural soil decomposition.

The Nitrogen is a 'pollutant' 

India has become the third country/entity after the US and the European Union have assessed the environmental impact of nitrogen on their respective regions comprehensively. 

The assessment shows that agriculture is the main source of nitrogen pollution in India. Within agriculture, cereals pollute the most.

How does agriculture produce nitrogen pollutants?

Rice and wheat take up the maximum cropped area in India at 36.95 million hectares and 26.69 million hectares respectively.

India consumes 17 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser annually as per the data of the fertilizer association of India.

Only 33% of the nitrogen that is applied to rice and wheat through fertilisers is taken up by the plants in the form of nitrates (N03).

Unfortunately for India, agriculture is just one of the sources of nitrogen pollution,

Sewage and Organic Solid Wastes- The Second Largest Sources of Nitrogen Pollution

Sewage and organic solid wastes form the second largest sources of Nitrogen pollution in India.

While this may not be so in developed countries with better system for sewage and solid waste management, including recovery of nutrients from them, it is one of the fastest growing sources of Nitrogen pollution in India.

Vehicles also Contribute NOx

Vehicular pollution is also a major contributor of NOx, accounting for 32% of the total emission in India, out of which 28% is from road transport. In Delhi, the share of road transport shoots up to the range of 66 to 74%.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to curb the nitrogen pollution, and act upon it. Individual attention can help in reducing the use of vehicles which produce Nitrogen, and proper education will help people in using appropriate fertilisers. For everything, government can not be entirely responsible, in the end - its we, are the people, who can manage to bring the change. 

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