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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee journalist explores phosphorus, one of the most perilous environmental issues of our time

This is Milwaukee environmental journalist Dan Egan's second book. His first explored the Great Lakes.
W.W. Norton & Co.

This is Milwaukee environmental journalist Dan Egan's second book. His first explored the Great Lakes.

Phosphorus is an element that’s critical to all life on earth, including the food we eat. But it’s also causing significant harm to our environment.

Dan Egan
Mike De Sisti
W.W. Norton & Co.
Dan Egan

Milwaukee writer Dan Egan has taken on the topic in his new book called, The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance.

Egan says its story folds in pollution, economics, the environment and history.

“Phosphorus has its tentacles in so many different things and you have to build an arc if you’re trying to keep a reader reading along,” Egan says. “It’s hard when you’re writing about something that is in every living cell.”

Phosphorus has made farming highly productive, but has also caused toxic algae blooms in Wisconsin’s waters.

“We have this legacy of over-applying phosphorus because it was like an insurance policy. It’s like when you’re cooking – if a little is good, a lot is better,” Egan says. “And now, as the farms are getting bigger, we’re applying manure in an arguably helter-skelter fashion in some cases.”

Egan says manure does what everything else on the planet does, “It flows downhill and unfortunately for us that too often means the Great Lakes or you look at some of the inland lakes,” Egan says. “And that’s the product of a landscape oversaturated with phosphorus.”

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It's impact of course is felt well beyond Wisconsin's borders and the Great Lakes basin. Phosphorus is impacting places like Florida.

 “Ocean coasts typically don’t have this toxic algae that we have in the Great Lakes … but I went to Florida because it was really interesting that both coasts, the Gulf and the Atlantic, certain communities were being just ravaged by this toxic algae and that’s because it’s coming from Lake Okeechobee in the middle of the state," he says.

The middle of Florida is home to loads of farming, and over the year loads of phosphorus-containing fertilizer has been spread on those fields.

“And unfortunately, not all the crops take up all the phosphorus,” and Egan says.

The phosphorus makes its way into Lake Okeechobee, and sometimes beyond to coastal communities. Egan met people impacted by  algae.

“People are just outraged about this environmental issue, but … they didn’t frame it as an environmental issue. It was just an economic issue and a health issue, a personal issue … people were also getting sick,” Egan says.

Phosphorus has been key to agriculture for centuries. “In the early, early days they would use anything they could find that would help their crops grow. They didn’t know what it was about these substances, they just knew they worked miracles on the cropland,” Egan says.

It turns out phosphorus along with nitrogen and potassium does the trick.

“As chemistry evolved and they were able to isolate the elements they realized that phosphorus is essential and we’ll go where we have to go to get it,” Egan says.

The key is that every living cell contains phosphorus and “That phosphorus doesn’t go away when the cell dies and in a lot of places around the globe … it piled up in these special sedimentary rock deposits,” Egan says.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the rock was mined and processed to fertilize fields. One extensively-mined stash called Bone Valley is located in Florida.

“But there have been estimates that the reserves … are going to play out, but this isn’t in 100 years or 200 years, this could be three decades, maybe a little bit more,” Egan says.

When that happens, Egan says the U.S. will have to turn to other countries for phosphorus.

Egan says his book is an introduction not to a prescription on how to tackle the challenge. But he does offer an opinion.“It’s critically, I think, I hope, gonna mean learning how to recycle the phosphorus that we’re using because that’s the beauty of this stuff, and it’s also the problem with it, it doesn’t go away, it just keeps recycling,” Egan says.

He calls it the circle of life that humans broke.

Dan Egan is the Brico Fund Journalist in Residence at the Center for Water Policy in the University of Wisconsin=Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. Egan has received multiple awards including Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and has twice been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. In addition to his new book, Egan authored “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes”.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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