Rebuttal to “The Radioactive Fertilizer Hoax”

I recommend you read that article first, and then look here for how I defend my own assertions.

Here is my response to him:

First, he says that rock phosphate is commonly used for organic tobacco farming. This is false, as advised to me by two tobacco farming experts. Rock phosphate is too expensive per acre of tobacco, and other low-radioactivity organic fertilizers are popular. Yes rock phosphate is significantly radioactive, but it simply isn’t used for tobacco.

He then talks in multiple paragraphs about radioactivity found in nature and the human body. I really don’t understand why he does this. Is he trying to say that radiation is healthy and not dangerous? The alpha radiation dose to the lungs of smokers is very dangerous.

He repeats his claim that rock phosphate is used a lot in organic tobacco crops, but that is false. He cites a paper written in 2010, but it is talking about all organic farming (not tobacco).

Commonly used organic tobacco fertilizers need to be used in higher quantities when compared to non-organic fertilizers. This is because commonly used organic fertilizers are low in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK), when compared to popular non-organic ones. But even when multiplying the radioactivity of those commonly used organic fertilizers by factors that result in equivalent nutrients to non-organic ones, the resulting radioactivity in the organics is still much less than that in the non-organic ones.

Here is proof:

For organic tobacco crops in the U.S., a very popular fertilizer is NatureSafe 8-5-5. That means it’s 8% nitrogen, 5% phosphorus, and 5% potassium. The main non-organic phosphorus fertilizer is triple superphosphate 0-45-0. That means 0% nitrogen, 45% phosphorus, and 0% potassium. For phosphorus in these two fertilizers, 45 is 9 times greater than 5. So multiply by 9 to use that organic fertilizer with the same level of phosphorus as the non-organic one. Let’s compare radioactivity of the two.

Look at the “Summary of the results” table in this paper.
You can find the whole paper here. The columns are for radioactivity of three isotopes in the uranium-238 decay series. You can see that the organic fertilizers (“Org. fertilizer”) are extremely low in radioactivity, when compared with the other fertilizers. If you multiply the average radioactivity of the Org. fertilizer by 9 in order to compare with non-organic, you’ll see that the resulting radioactivity number is well-below that of the non-organics. This means that if organic tobacco farmers use a lot more organic fertilizer, in order to equal the nutrients supplied by non-organic fertilizer, the resulting radiation doses to the crops is still far below that of non-organic tobacco crops. And they are still cheaper than rock phosphate. Plus, organic tobacco farmers get paid more for their crops, when compared to non-organic tobacco. Also, non-organic fertilizers like triple super phosphate, wash out of the soil faster than organic fertilizers. So non-organic tobacco farms will be applying and reapplying non-organic fertilizers more than organic. This is another reason organic tobacco is lower in radioactivity.

Potassium radioactivity does not depend on organic vs. non-organic. The more potassium, the more radioactive potassium-40 will be present. You can read about it here. So growers of organic and non-organic tobacco will seek the potassium they need, with a constant level of radiation added by that potassium. There is a wide selection of fertilizers, both organic and non-organic, with differing potassium concentrations. There is a suitable match for any tobacco farmer, and the fields they use will be more or less equal in terms of potassium and radioactive potassium-40. Plus, potassium-40 emits beta radiation; not the alpha radiation that mainly causes cancer due to radiation. He also mentions rubidium-87 as an isotope along with potassium. Non-organic potassium fertilizers may be free of rubidium-87, but rubidium-87 is a beta radiating substance, not alpha. Plus, if anything with rubidium-87, my radiation numbers are a bit in favor of the non-organic fertilizers, because of the absence of that radioactive isotope in some non-organic fertilizers.

He says that some of the radiation measured in fertilizer samples comes from water. However, he only mentions one fertilizer that contains this radioactive water substance, tritium. And it is a beta emiter, not alpha. So we can disregard that.

He complains again about unequal amounts of nutrients, by mass of organic compared with non-organic fertilizers, but I’ve already addressed that.

He continues to compare non-organic fertilizers to rock phosphate. Yes rock phosphate is organic, but not used for tobacco farming. The other organic fertilizers, the ones that are actually used, are incredibly less radioactive, even when the nutrient levels are equalized with the popular non-organic triple superphosphate and others.

He complains about not knowing which isotopes are resulting in differing levels of radioactivity, but the above paper points out three: Uranium-238, radium-226, and lead-210. And above I address this. Here’s the link to that paper again.

He shows that comparing organic and non-organic fertilizers can be problematic. He gives the example of purely nitrogen organic fertilizer, and does some math to compare it with a 5% nitrogen, 20% phosphorus, and 20% potassium non-organic fertilizer. Yes, in that case, he has a point! But above here, I show that when comparing the main component of radioactivity, the phosphorus content, the comparison is valid. That is, to compare NatureSafe 8-5-5 to triple superphosphate 0-45-0. In that comparison, as you can see above, the main radioactivity component, the phosphorus, is compared in terms of radioactivity from 5 to 45 (9x). And when a more representative comparison is made, as I have, the radioactivity of the organic fertilizers is still lower than non-organic. He does point out a flaw in the reasoning of the people whose study he is mainly criticizing though, because they fail to understand that an organic fertilizer containing only nitrogen cannot be correctly compared with a non-organic fertilizer that has nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

The component that needs to be in focus, when comparing fertilizers, is the phosphorus, with its alpha radiation. He does not seem to understand this, and the fact that beta radiation is mostly harmless when compared with alpha.

He complains about isotopes not being identified, but you can easily see them in that paper, once again linked to here, uranium-238, radium-226, and lead-210. Contrary to what he says, polonium-210 is very much always present in the decay chain, involving those isotopes. Click here to see the full uranium-238 decay chain.

He seems to claim that he has made calculations, like what I have done here, to truly compare non-organic fertilizer to organic. He mentions that he arrives at 1.2x-1.5x increases of radiation due to non-organic fertilizers, when overall compared with organic ones. This is not far off from my research, as I have measured non-organic tobacco samples are about 3.8x more radioactive than organic. The research he is criticizing, he says, arrived at 5x, with their flawed methodology. I agree it has limitations, but should not be attacked with such fervor, especially when his analysis is incomplete. I mean him no harm. I just want to point out what I’ve been able to improve with.

He’s right that urea, widely used in non-organic crops, is radioactive. Urea is, by far, the most popular source of nitrogen for non-organic (it is not allowed for organic crops). It is a beta emitter, but it inflates the apparent alpha radiation from non-organic fertilizers, to most geiger counters, namely mine. But looking at the paper above, those non-organic fertilizers still have incredibly higher amounts of alpha radiation, due to the huge increase in uranium-238, radium-226, and lead-210, which are almost nonexistant in common organic tobacco fertilizers. So to most Geiger counters, there may be an artificial inflation of non-organic radioactivity. I attemped to measure just the alpha radiation, and failed (the method I had read about didn’t work). The numbers don’t make sense. So I fall back on my existing data, which is of all four types of radiation measured by a Geiger counter (not just alpha). You can see in -that paper once again- that there are tons more alpha-radiating substances in the commonly used non-organic fertilizers. So, it’s safe to assume much of the increase in radioactivity in non-organic tobacco, which I’ve measured, is due to that cancer-causing alpha radiation. So, my numbers may not be exact, but they give an approximate view of the danger of smoking non-organic vs. the much safer organic options.

To the author of the Radioactive Fertilizer Hoax, and to the research he criticizes, those are measurements of fertilizer. I measure the end-product: cigarette tobacco. So I think my numbers are more representative.

He complains again about not knowing the isotopes, but they are in that paper, cited above.

What former surgeon general Koop did say, is that 90% of lung cancer is caused by smoking. It is false that radiation in tobacco causes 90% or lung cancers. However, for smokers, smoking organic tobacco reduces the lung cancer risk, due to smoking, by about 25%. That is from my own research you can find on this website.

I have never measured marijuana for radioactivity, but it most likely shares traits with tobacco. The stickiness of tobacco leaves helps the evaporating fertilizer to stick to it. I know that some parts of marijuana plants are sticky. So I imagine similarities there when it comes to radioactivity being transferred from the soil to the plant. If you are going to grow marijuana, in any scale, use the organic fertilizers – much less radioativity transferred to your smoke.

He raises some valid questions in his last paragraph. I would assume that hydroponic applications of fertilizers would be similar to soil fertilizer ones. Root uptake of the radioactive fertilizer components, along with evaporation and sticking to the leaves – that might be very similar indeed! I recommend for any crop, via any method, use organic fertilizers (excluding rock phosphate), and you will enjoy better health. His second question I can answer: Yes, using popular organic fertilizers will result in less radioactivity, even when applied in large amounts, in order to equal the nutrients found in non-organic fertilizers. I illustrated that above. And yes, I also addressed which isotopes are present. And finally, yes, the radioactivity decrease in organic tobacco, compared with non-organic, is about 25% less likely to give you lung cancer. I imagine all this would hold true for marijuana as well, to some extent.