Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Your Nitrogen Footprint Has Far-Reaching Consequences

By Xia Liang

Australia’s reliance on coal and taste for beef is contributing to nitrogen pollution as far away from our population centres as the Great Barrier Reef.

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Nitrogen is an essential component of the nucleic acids and enzyme proteins found in the living cells of plants, animals and humans. Life can only exist because of the availability of reactive nitrogen, which encompasses all forms of nitrogen other than the inert nitrogen gas that makes up 80% of the air we breathe.

However, only a tiny fraction of the reactive nitrogen we produce goes into building up our muscles. Instead, most of it gets released into the environment, costing of billions of dollars worldwide in human health and ecosystem damages.

Once reactive nitrogen has escaped into environ­mental reservoirs, it cascades through atmospheric, terrestrial, aquatic and marine pools, and has a range of effects during its lifetime. These include smog, climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, soil acidification, forest dieback, biodiversity loss, groundwater pollution, ocean acidification and eutrophication.

For example, reactive nitrogen loss in Australia poses a major pollution risk to the Great Barrier Reef, leading to algal blooms and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. In 2016 and 2017, more than 40% of coral was lost.

Reactive nitrogen pollutants are derived from a range of diffuse and point sources, including agriculture, manufacturing and industry, mining, rural and urban residential sources, transport, waste treatment and...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.