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Community Calendar

Gardening fair for children

A children’s gardening fair will be held on Saturday, July 6, from noon to 2:00 p.m. at Plants of the Southwest. Fun activities, theater, music, games, and exhibits are planned to make a special afternoon for all. Plants of the Southwest is at 6680 4th Street NW in Albuquerque. Call 344-8830 for further information.

The Placitas Gardener—

Chlorosis, Ironite, and toxic waste

Peter C. Benjamin

As far back as I can recall, I’ve been recommending the product Ironite for use in correcting iron chlorosis in plants, without giving the advice a second thought. My philosophy on plant health has always been holistic treatment for the cause, not the effect. Since I try to treat the root of the problem and not the symptoms, my approach often leads me in search of medication of the organic variety. I have believed until now that Ironite fell into this category.

A joint press release issued by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Mineral Policy Center has changed all of my preconceptions regarding the aforementioned product. I must preface this piece by saying that although I like to think of myself as environmentally responsible, I do not consider myself to be an activist or zealot. I’m simply a thinking person who wants to know the facts before making any decision.

Essentially, the release states that “testing by government agencies has found that Ironite has levels of arsenic high enough to be classified as toxic waste. . . . Ironite also contains high levels of lead. [And according to one of my scientific sources, cadmium as well.] Although federal law requires that hazardous waste be properly disposed of in regulated landfills, a legal loophole called the Bevill Exemption excludes the mining industry.” Ironite is a fertilizer produced from the mine tailings of a proposed Superfund site in Humboldt, Arizona.

Further research on my part revealed that this is much bigger than whistle-blowing by a few environmental watchdogs. The Seattle Times featured an exposé that included independent laboratory tests of twenty lawn- and garden-fertilizer products for toxic heavy metals, and then asked state officials to comment. Ironite was by far the highest in arsenic, lead, and mercury. A state lab confirmed the results, which then led to sweeping labeling changes, advertisements about the product’s toxicity, and ultimately changing the product—not just the labeling—in order to comply with the nation’s first limits on toxic metals in fertilizer. Those limits, based on Canada’s, went into effect in Washington state on June 11, 2002, and at least a dozen other states are considering similar limits.

Maine currently is considering a bill that will effectively ban the sale of Ironite in that state. This is because analysis by the state found that Ironite contains 4,380 ppm of arsenic and 2,910 ppm of lead. The bill sets the allowable content of arsenic at 500 ppm for fertilizers sold in Maine. New Hampshire researchers have found a direct correlation between high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water and bladder cancer. The state has the highest ppm of naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water in the country, and they fear that fertilizer products containing additional heavy metals and toxins will find their way into the groundwater. New Hampshire also has the highest incidence of bladder cancer in the nation.

We certainly have elevated levels of arsenic in New Mexican groundwater, so adding more doesn’t sound very appealing. Based on maximum application rates, Ironite would deposit twenty-three pounds of arsenic and seventeen pounds of lead per acre. No matter how you feel about the use of this product as a fertilizer, you should definitely keep this product away from children and pets.

According to the Seattle Times report, Ironite’s president, Heinz Brungs, counters that experts hired by Ironite say that the toxic chemicals are tied up in a mineral form that does not affect plants or animals and that one would have to heat the product to 4,000 degrees to release any of the harmful agents. He goes on to say that “I’m sixty-one years old and I’m drinking this product for ten years on a regular basis. I’m drinking it, yes. Sometimes I feel tired or stressed out, and I know that I’m lacking minerals. So I take some of our product and stir it in water and drink it.”

Correspondence issued via the Web by Dr. Thomas L. Thompson, of the University of Arizona, reports that there is no official university recommendation of this product. “However, I am not at all surprised to hear that Ironite contains arsenic and lead. Ironite is, after all, mine tailings that have been given minimal treatment and bagged for sale to consumers.” He goes on to say that eating leafy vegetables fertilized with Ironite should be avoided, at least until we have more information. Consumers and retailers can find more information on fertilizers at

The more I dug into the topic of toxins in fertilizer, the more amazed and horrified I became. Some of the oldest and most trusted names in the business are guilty of the same charges as those being made against Ironite. In fact, according to the same sources, more than one hundred products were affected by Washington’s new law on toxic metals in fertilizer, including some of those manufactured by Scotts and Lebanon Chemical. Forty-six were denied licenses to sell their products in the state, while others were forced to change their labels or their formulas. Some, including Schultz, Scotts, and Stern’s Miracle-Gro fertilizers, have even been hit with stop-sale orders, mostly for failing to register with the state. Almost half of the stop-sale orders have been released. Voluntary Purchasing Groups, of Bonham, Texas, which manufacturers Ionate, a more highly concentrated iron supplement than Ironite, was one of six companies forced to modify products (fifteen in all) made from hazardous wastes. Most found cleaner sources of zinc.

It appears that through government loopholes, products masquerading as environmentally safe and nonpolluting are actually hazardous toxic waste deemed harmful by the EPA. Harmful enough to have some sources considered as proposed Superfund sites.

I believe now more strongly than ever that the organic route is the best way to go, but I’m still going to exercise caution when handling raw products such as rock phosphate and greensand.

Iron is necessary for the formation of chlorophyll, which is responsible for the green color in plants and is the source of plant food and energy. Iron chlorosis in plants is exhibited by a yellowing of the leaves while the veins appear green. High pH is the most frequent cause of chlorosis because it makes the iron, which already exists in the soil, unavailable to the plant. By adding ammonium sulfate, sulfur, and chelated iron, the pH is reduced, which allows the plant to take advantage of available iron and other micronutrients, such as zinc, manganese, and boron.

The soil should be allowed to dry out between deep watering to allow for the uptake of available iron. Wet soils keep oxygen levels low, and absorption of iron by the roots requires an oxygen transfer (from page 30 —Gardener).

By reducing irrigation to the necessary level, applying available iron to the soil in the form of iron chelates and ferrous sulfates, and adding organic matter in the form of compost regularly, the pH is reduced, chlorosis becomes a non-issue, and the need to apply poisonous toxic wastes to your garden becomes a moot point. I don’t know who I’m angrier with at this point—the government or the manufacturers. Maybe I’ll divide my ire equally among both. With any luck, with enough voices, this madness will stop. The state of Washington did it and Canada did it. Why not New Mexico?