Book Review: The Devil’s Element: A Hell of a Mess We’ve Gotten Ourselves Into

While reading The Devil’s Element: Phosphorous and a World Out of Balance by Dan Egan I happened to come across this article in The New York Times about a growing crisis along the Cape driven by antiquated septic systems. According to the article:

More waste also means more phosphorus entering the Cape’s freshwater ponds, where it feeds cyanobacteria, a type of algae that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage, among other health effects. It can also kill pets.

Cyanobacteria also kills people. It is probably killing more people than we know. And it’s not just a handful of old septic systems turning waterways and lakes a putrid shade of green. For that we can blame, what else, but our animal and agriculture industries.

But first it’s important to understand why this innocent-sounding element is both so necessary to our survival and also causing so much environmental destruction. Egan does an impressive job of taking the reader from the discovery of phosphorous to the use and misuse of this vital element throughout history. Phosphorous, in its purest form, is incredibly dangerous yet, when diluted into fertilizer alongside nitrogen and potassium, is the reason our backyard gardens will produce fruits and vegetables this summer. But as it’s often said, the poison is the dose. And we as a society have overdosed on this element.

From the canals of south Florida to the waterways of Louisiana and all the way north to the Great Lakes, it is becoming difficult to find a major body of water that hasn’t been negatively impacted by fertilizer runoff and animal industrial waste.

Farms throughout the midwest often rely on drainage tiles (plastic pipes today) that lower the water table to create more productive harvests. These pipes carry excess water to the river ways along with excess fertilizer — which finds its way to lakes and, in the case of Iowa farmland, to the Gulf of Mexico.

What’s particularly tragic about today’s phosphorus crisis is that, as Egan notes, we’ve been down this toxic road (or river) before. He takes us back to the 1950s when phosphorus-loaded detergents became national brands and rivers began spilling over with suds. Fortunately, governments enacted regulations — though not without years of well-funded resistances from the makers of Tide and others (who would have guessed that a book could make me group the makers of Tide in with oil drillers and meat producers).

But, years ago, we could easily identify the detergent makers and large industrial polluters and fix the problem. Today we’ve got about two million farms spread across 40% of the lower 48 states.

For example, Egan writes, “The number of animals in the Maumee (Ohio) watershed more than doubled to twenty million between 2005 and 2018 while the amount of manure-based phosphorous aded to the watershed grew by 67 percent, or 10,600 tons annually. Those farming operations collectively produce as much excreta as a city of at least several million people.”

Which leaves us with toxic water from sea to green-fringed sea.

Fortunately, we can fix things. Each of us can make an effort to use less fertilizer on our own gardens — and look for more environmental solutions. Egan ends the book on a positive note, with a number of practical ways forward, one so obvious that one apparently need only to travel to Asia to see it (or possibly smell it). Egan writes that Asian farmers have largely been immune from this phosphorus crisis because they have long relied on human waste to fertilize their fields (Though I do worry that China is becoming more the like the Western World day by day; see the 12-story hog hotel).

But we humans are a wonderful source of fertilizer — alive and dead — only we’ve built an entire infrastructure that does very little to repurpose our waste back into fertilizer. I was completely unaware that years ago the Milwaukee Metro Sewage District pioneered the reuse of waste in creating a product known as Milorganate — which you can use on your lawn. If you can find any; it’s in such high demand that they keep running out of stock. So why don’t we all pressure our local governments and utilities to follow this example?

The Devil’s Element is a great read — you will learn much about an element that we can’t live without and we have for too long taken for granted.

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