A recent study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that atmospheric carbon dioxide may be the least of our worries. Nitrous oxide is on the rise in the air and waters, and each molecule has a warming potential 300 times greater than CO2.
You may be familiar with this nitrogen compound from the dental anesthesia, or from the extra oomph it gives to race cars. A poisonous compound at room temperature, nitric oxide also plays a part in normal human physiology. A person’s body actually uses nitric oxide in several different capacities while exercising. During exercise, the body needs to increase blood supply to the muscles as well as increase blood flow to your skin to dissipate heat. Vasodilation or the dilation of the blood vessels that carry blood to these regions enables the body to do both. Nitric oxide is one of several signaling molecules that help induce vasodilation during exercise. If you have low libido and choose to use sildenafil citrate, which is better known as the brand name Viagra, it will interfere with pathways involving nitric oxide.
Stationary sources of N2O include nitric acid manufacturing plants as well as manufacturers of nitrated materials such as fertilizer and explosives, and industrial manufacturers (glass manufacturers, cement kilns, metallurgical processors, power generators, etc.) Because of the environmental concerns posed by air pollution, a great deal of research time and money has been expended to develop methods for controlling nitrous oxide emissions and keeping those manufacturing plants clean. In order to not compound the matter, some of these manufacturers actually use eco-friendly cleaning supplies in order to avoid industry chemicals. One such company that supplies green certified products, made from natural and organic materials to safely clean businesses without harming the environment is CleanItSupply, a wholesale online janitorial supplies store. Originally established to provide discount cleaning products for commercial use, they also services retail customers. Hopefully, somewhere in the future a breakthrough may occur that will offer an alternative to the use of nitrogen based products.
However, at the moment, if you are familiar with climate change topics, you may know N2O as the leading cause of ozone depletion. However, this particular study points towards its unintended formation as the result of fertilizer waste.
Nitrogen-based fertilizers are (as we’ve said elsewhere on these pages) big business for both industrial and small-scale agriculture. Simply put, current crop production requires far more usable nitrogen than natural processes can create. Therefore, fertilizer nitrogen must be manufactured (using copious amounts of fossil fuels in the process, by the way).
Not to mention the effect of excess fertilizer flowing from farm fields into streams and then into large tributaries that ultimately create disasters in our coastal waterways – think Chesapeake Bay, for example. What happens is that the nitrogen rich water promotes the overgrowth then death of algae and other organisms. This depletes large areas of the water of oxygen, and become ‘dead zones’ where nothing thrives. So the threat from nitrogen is much bigger than anyone would have guessed.
But nitrogen-based fertilization is the current state of the art in big agro, so it’s not going away anytime soon. Growth in population triggers growth in demand for food crops, which triggers the use of more and more nitrogen-based fertilizer getting into our waterway, because more and more is being manufactured, used, and washed into drainage runoffs.
The environmental impact of this widespread production, use, and waste is still being ascertained, but what we know is very alarming. The formation of heretofore unknown levels of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere is the latest concern, as the new study finds N2O in Earth’s waters at three times what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had estimated.
On a scary note, we also know that the situation regarding nitrogen pollution is even more alarming in overseas farming communities where locals have emulated our methods.