Editor's Choice

The Devil's Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance

Dylan Schleicher

March 31, 2023


Phosphorus is a bringer of both life and death, but the balance has been tilted toward the destruction and environmental degradation of many places across the world over the years. Dan Egan explores the history of human activity in securing and using this vital element, and how we can begin to tilt the balance back toward the productive and life-giving qualities of phosphorus that all life on Earth relies upon.

DevilsElement.jpgThe Devil's Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance by Dan Egan, W. W. Norton & Company

From the firebombing of Hamburg in WWII to digging up fallen soldiers’ bones from the battle of Waterloo and using them to fertilize the farm fields of England, putting phosphorus to use has had a dark and grisly history. That history unfolds in the pages of Dan Egan’s new book, The Devil’s Element, but the story of humans and phosphorus is still evolving—affecting everyone and everything that lives and dies on Earth. That may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. Entire islands have been stripped nearly bare for it. Entire cultures have been, and continue to be, swept violently aside or subdued in pursuit of this essential element.  

If the reason for this could be summed up in one word, it would be one close to our homes and hearts here in Wisconsin: agriculture. That is because phosphorus, along with nitrogen and potassium, is essential for making things grow, and we grow a lot of things here in the dairy state. 

Also close to home (the book’s author, Dan Egan, and Porchlight Book Company both reside in Milwaukee), is the story of Charles Frosch, a 12-year-old boy who fell from a stone wall along the Baraboo River in Reedsburg and drowned. His body wasn’t recovered for nearly two months—even though it was “just yards from where he slipped under.” The reason for this was that, at the time he drowned, in 1956, many waterways of the industrialized world were smothered in foam so thick that you couldn’t see the water beneath it. Egan tells us how, in 1962, a US Congressman visiting Denmark encountered what he thought might be a massive iceberg on the North Sea. It was, in fact, “a mountain of foam floating serenely along on the water.” The foam came from a new product introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1946, and soon after replicated by other industrial corporations: laundry detergent. More specifically, the soap foam was produced by the highly concentrated phosphorus in that detergent, which literally washed into our waterways. But the bubbles were not the real problem. It was what came in their wake—toxic algae blooms and red tides.  

Lurking beneath all the white fluff, it turned out, was a far graver problem tied to the detergents—a continent-wide explosion of putrid green algae that was growing so thick on lakes and rivers across the country that by the mid-1960s it was choking the life out of them. 

Lake Erie was especially hard hit. In Dr. Seuss’s books, The Lorax, the fish who escape the waters by “walk[ing] on their fins and get woefully weary in search of some water that isn’t so smeary” was a reference to the outbreaks of toxic algae that created large dead zones in lakes across the country. The Seuss book originally contained a rhyming line specifically naming Lake Erie (rhyming it with weary and smeary). Following a now familiar corporate playbook, P&G challenged the science that pointed to phosphorus as the element responsible for fouling the nation’s waters.  

David Schindler, a Minnesota native who pioneered ecological studies on a series of lakes in the wilderness of western Ontario for the Canadian government, eventually provided the proof. He divided one lake into two sections, and dosed one side with carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus fertilizer, and the other with only carbon and nitrogen. Aerial photos of the “ghastly green surface”—an algae bloom—that resulted on the side dosed with phosphorus alongside the “the pristine, deep-blue water” next to it, proved the link and swayed public opinion. As Egan writes: 

Schindler could not have made his case more convincing, and the public’s verdict was swift—fouled waters are too high a price to pay for whiter and brighter shirts and sheets. Phosphorus use in laundry detergents was eliminated or greatly scaled back in the 1970s and ‘80s, and in a little more than a decade, the nation’s algae problem was significantly reduced. 

The Clean Water Act was a big part of the success, and the situation had improved so much by the 1980s that Dr. Seuss even agreed to remove the line about Lake Erie from subsequent printings of The Lorax.  

But the problem has returned. From Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the “liquid heart” of the Florida Peninsula, Lake Okeechobee, our nation’s lakes are once again turning a ghastly green and choking on toxic algae blooms. And the problem isn’t going to be as easy to tackle this time around.  

There were, Schindler explained, only a handful of detergent makers in the 1970s that needed to change the way they did business. Today the phosphorus problem in the United States alone is driven by the roughly two million farms operating on about 40 percent of the landmass of the lower forty-eight states. 

You see, the Clean Water Act, which required municipalities and industries to clean up their act, exempted agriculture. And today, the largest culprit by far is agriculture, which is still largely exempt. As more land is put under agricultural production, more and more phosphate rock fertilizer and phosphorus-rich manure taken from factory farms and spread on crop fields runs off those fields and collects in our waterways. And the problem has become so large that it is no longer affecting only freshwater lakes and rivers. So much phosphorus is running off farmlands in the Mississippi River Basin and into the Gulf of Mexico that a “massive manmade dead zone now rolls in every summer with all the predictability of the tide,” shutting down beaches along the coast during the peak of the tourism season and bringing ruin to those who rely on that industry. If that were the cost we needed to pay to feed our nation’s families, perhaps it would be a price worth paying, but: 

A staggering 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States is now used to make ethanol. 

So, just as the degradation of Lake Erie was once tied to laundry detergents, the degradation of the Gulf of Mexico is now, in part, tied to ethanol. But it is not the only problem.  

The saltwater of the Gulf should be so brackish that it can’t support algae blooms, but the climate is changing in such a way that more water from increasingly wetter weather up north—where the corn to produce ethanal is grown—is making its way into the Gulf and altering the salinity of the water, thus making algae blooms possible. There are those working on carbon capture to help address the climate crisis, and those working on phosphorus capture to help address a growing water quality crisis, but there is one thing that could make an immediate impact: regulating agricultural runoff more effectively, and/or easing and eventually ending ethanol subsidies. As Egan sees it:  

[U]ntil presidential candidates no longer have to profess their fealty to ethanol [in Iowa], or there are dramatic changes in the way agriculture is regulated, things are going to get worse for Mississippi.   

The Mississippi River watershed may be our largest problem, but as you’ll read in a particularly sad and scary section about Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, there is a similar, long-standing, worsening phosphorus-water pollution nexus that exists there, and nearly everywhere in America today.  

And it is not only an American problem. Phosphorus, unlike other fertilizers like nitrogen and potassium, is not a naturally abundant element, and most of the phosphorus fertilizer used in the world comes from phosphate rock deposits that are unevenly spread around the world.  

The story of the island of Banaba highlights the extent humans will go to mine phosphate rock. Between 1900 to 1979, 90 percent of the island’s surface was stripped away and shipped off to fertilize the farmlands of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The population of the island was even removed by the British government in 1945 to finish the job. Around 300 people have since returned, but their island and their culture have been decimated.   

The current geopolitical reality of phosphorus comes into sharper focus when Egan zooms in on the Western Sahara. Once controlled by Spain, and now under the control of Morocco, the deserts of the Western Sahara contain some 70 to 80 percent of the world’s mineable phosphate rock. The territory is not internationally recognized as a part of any country, and after a “bloodbath on Sahrawi resistance fighters in what became one of the longest, most lopsided wars you probably have never heard of,” about half of the region’s native Sahrawi population has been pushed into tent cities in neighboring Algeria while Moroccan soldiers patrol and control the lucrative phosphate mines. 

Similar to the worry about peak oil, there is also a worry about peak phosphate. That is likely centuries away globally, but the known deposits of phosphate are not evenly distributed, which is why England, Australia, and New Zealand were so interested in the island of Banaba. Having 70 to 80 percent of the world’s known reserves today in an area of contested sovereignty and protracted war is not exactly reassuring for the world’s food security.  

While America has its own reserves (largely in Florida), some estimates suggest they could be used up in the next thirty to forty years. 

This puts the richest country in the world at risk of running out of existing phosphorus reserves … after which it could become dependent on other countries to keep its population adequately fed. And while countries all over the world, including Algeria, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Peru, Russia, and Tunisia, are scrambling to develop their own relatively small reserves, it seems quite possible that at some point Morocco is destined to be the world’s primary phosphorus dispenser. And it would not be just one country in control of this life-essential element. It would be one family, even one guy.  

That is the King of Morocco, under whose rule you can currently be “imprisoned for speaking ill of Islam, for speaking ill of the king, or for having forms of sex the king does not like.” This while another generation of Sahrawi refugees is growing up in tent cities and rumors of a new war begin to circulate. Najla Mohamedlamin grew up in those tent cities, an environment where one would be scolded if they spilled water, it is so precious. But the land is rich in phosphate. “It is my country’s wealth,” she says, “that is turning your soils green.” And the desert sands red.  

But even before we attempted to control it, with all the human drama, death, and destruction that accompanies attempts to control a valuable resource, phosphorus moved around the world in a natural cycle of life and death. As Egan explains: 

An exquisitely balanced phosphorus exchange existed for billions of years before humans corrupted the element’s flow through the environment. 

Life on Earth is the literal result of that exchange. Phosphorus was, and still is, even carried on the winds. A NASA-funded study has found that dust clouds from the phosphorus-rich deserts of the Western Sahara naturally drift across the jet stream of the Atlantic Ocean and fall on the Amazon Jungle, creating a natural, life-giving phosphorus exchange “between one of the planet’s most desiccated places and one of its most verdant—and surprisingly phosphorus-hungry.” It is an awe-inspiring phenomenon that highlights the importance of phosphorus to landscapes of the world, and should remind us of how closely all things, including all people, are connected. It should also act as a reminder that, if we wish to control it, we must seek a way to maintain a balance that promotes the cultivation of the life while mitigating death and destruction downstream.   

People get worked up about regulation, complaining that it is overly burdensome to business. But times of transition should be seen as opportunities for introspection and innovation, a chance to restore balance and increase wellbeing. Even Procter & Gamble, the industrial behemoth that once denied its Tide detergent was responsible for the red tides of the twentieth century, is now—with mixed success—dedicated to environmental initiatives and sustainability in the twenty-first. And farmers would surely be better off if they could retain and recycle phosphorus into their soil rather than letting it run off to soil our waters downstream. 

Phosphorus is a bringer of both life and death, a cycle, and humans have intervened in a way that has tipped it toward destruction across the globe. We clearly need to transition away from overdosing and poisoning our waters with phosphorus fertilizer, because even in places as relatively safe as Toledo, Ohio, cyanobacteria from algae blooms ended up in the intake of the public water system and forced officials to issue a do-not-drink order. Boiling the water only concentrated the toxin.  

It can also be concentrated in the food we consume if it is pulled from environments laced with cyanobacteria caused by algae blooms, like seafood from the Gulf of Mexico or coasts of Florida. Some neurobiologists, including Oliver Sacks, believe there may be a link to such concentrations and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Even if the health effects are not that severe, people who live near waters fouled by algae bloom know well the immediate health effects—which include red, watery eyes, vomiting, a persisting dry cough, pneumonia, and abdominal pain. Longer term effects include liver disease and cancer.  

Phosphorus was originally isolated in its elemental form by a seventeenth-century German alchemist who boiled down his own urine to extract pure phosphorus. Coming full circle today, German scientists in Hamburg, a city once nearly levelled by phosphorus firebombs, are developing technology to pull phosphorus from biosolids in municipal waste. Europe has no significant phosphorus rock reserves, so this could be a step toward food security on the continent. Egan writes of how this will “lead to improved water quality, and it should make some people wealthy along the way.”  

We have solved this problem before, and—even though it is more massive and complicated today—we can solve it again. There are opportunities to be had, and a more sustainable future to build. Whatever our impetus, we all have a fundamental interest in clean water and food security. As Dan Egan shows us, the devil's element, phosphorus, plays an elemental role in both. 

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of Porchlight since 2003. After beginning in shipping and receiving, he moved through customer service (with some accounting on the side) before entering into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the marketing and editorial aspects of the company. Outside of work, you’ll find him volunteering or playing basketball at his kids’ school, catching the weekly summer concert at the Washington Park Bandshell, or strolling through one of the many other parks or green spaces around his home in Milwaukee (most likely his own gardens). He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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