Ironite Fertilizer Backgrounder


Background Information on Waste-Derived Fertilizer in California


General information about toxic fertilizer
Information about Ironite
California Department of Food and Agriculture Fertilizer (CDFA) regulations
Other fertilizer laws


General Information About Toxic Fertilizer:

  • The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) conducted a human health risk assessment for the purpose of establishing risk-based concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and lead in inorganic fertilizers distributed commercially in California. Source: CDFA (Foster Wheeler Environmental Corporation) March 20, 1998 report “Development of Risk-Based Concentrations for Arsenic, Cadmium, and Lead in Inorganic Commercial Fertilizers” (Report is not available on the web; contact information for CDFA:
  • The CDFA risk assessment reviewed numerous scientific studies indicating that a wide variety of food crops may absorb heavy metals when present in the soil, as summarized in the Table below.
Food Crops that Absorb Contaminants Detected in Fertilizers
Vulnerable Crops
Health Effects of Contaminant
Arsenic Carrots, onions, potatoes, other root crops Carcinogenic
Cadmium Lettuce, corn, wheat Kidney disease, carcinogenic, birth defects, diminished fertility
Lead Fruits and grains Seizures, mental retardation, behavioral disorders
Dioxin Zucchini, pumpkin, cucumber Carcinogenic, diminished fertility, birth defects, immune system dysfunction
SOURCES: Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry, U.S. Public Health Service, Environmental Protection Agency. Environment International Agency for Research on Cancer and Environmental Health Perspectives.

ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP November 1999 report: "As You Sow: Toxic Waste in California Home and Farm Fertilizers"

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studied the issue of heavy metals and other non-nutritive constituents (also referred to as contaminants) in fertilizers and liming materials.
    Source: U.S. EPA (Battelle) January 1999 report “Background Report on Fertilizer Use, Contaminants and Regulations”
  • The Washington Toxics Coalition explored the question of whether toxic-waste fertilizers actually serve a beneficial purpose. The group, in conjunction with the University of California at Davis, researched whether toxic-waste fertilizers promote plant growth in the same way that ordinary fertilizers do, or under-perform in providing nutrients while overloading the soil with metals and dioxin. (November 2001 report “Holding the Bag”
  • California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) tested 29 fertilizers from 12 states for 22 toxic metals. (May 2001 report: “Wastelands: The Threat of Toxic Fertilizer”
  • Between 1990 and 1995, California industries sent nearly 30 million pounds of industrial chemicals to fertilizer companies and farms to be recycled and applied to land. (Source: March 1998 report: "Factory Farming”
  • The Minnesota Department of Health, at the request of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, conducted a screening evaluation of arsenic, cadmium and lead in fertilizer products to evaluate potential health risks from fertilizer products, including Ironite, sold in Minnesota. (Source: April 1999 report: "Screening Evaluation of Arsenic, Cadmium and Lead Levels in Minnesota Fertilizer Products"
  • An Australian investigation has uncovered the practice of using hazardous waste in fertilizers Down Under. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald,
  • A Seattle Times investigative reporter, Duff Wilson, publicized the practice of recycling hazardous waste into fertilizer in an award-winning newspaper series in 1997 and wrote a book published September 2001 called “Fateful Harvest” (available at
  • Seattle Times Archives: “Fear in the fields: How hazardous wastes become fertilizer, part 1,” July 3, 1997, display?slug=fert&date=19970703
  • “Fear in the fields: How hazardous wastes become fertilizer, part 2,” July 4, 1997 display?slug=regu&date=19970704

Information About Ironite

  • The Environmental Law Foundation lawsuit alleges that the lead and arsenic contents in Ironite exceed the maximum concentration limits (i.e., “non-nutritive standards”) set by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), 3 C.C.R. § 2302(a).
Ironite’s Contents of Heavy Metals Compared to CDFA Limits
Heavy Metals
Company Data1 (in parts per million)
CDFA Limit2 (in parts per million)
Exceeds the Limit
Arsenic 4380 ppm 189.65 ppm Yes, 23 times
Lead 2910 ppm 1927 ppm Yes, 1.5 times
1 Currently posted data that Ironite Products Company submitted to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, available at
2 These limits assume that Ironite is a specialty fertilizer, as defined by Cal. Food & Agric. Code § 14563. Ironite exceeds limits if alternatively defined as an agricultural mineral
  • The Environmental Law Foundation lawsuit claims that Ironite Products Company makes deceiving representations of fact on its website ( that Ironite is safe for people to use and safe for the environment. For example, the website states that Ironite "Does Not Pollute" and is "Environmentally Safe." The website also states: "Ironite: Good for Your Lawn & Garden. Safe to Use;" "Laboratory and field tests prove Ironite is safe to humans, pets and the environment;" "Ironite is not manufactured by chemical processing, but rather from naturally occurring rock containing essential minerals," and more. The Company’s website neglects to point out the high levels of lead and arsenic - and also fails to mention the maximum levels of cadmium, cobalt, copper, mercury, molybdenum, nickel and selenium - in Ironite, which are known, or should be known, to the Company.
  • In May 1998, Washington state health officials issued a public warning on Ironite, saying it contains undisclosed arsenic and lead that could be dangerous to children who accidentally eat some from the bag or the ground. (Duff, Wilson, Seattle Times, “State issues warning on lawn fertilizer,” May 9, 1998 display?slug=fert&date=19980509)
  • The founder of Ironite Products Company fought press accusations that his company's best-selling product breaks down to produce lead and arsenic in potentially lethal doses. (The Business Journal,“Ironite Founder Blasts Bad Press on Product,” April 24, 1998
  • Ironite Products Company manufactures Ironite fertilizer from mine tailings taken from a proposed Superfund site that used to be called Iron King Mine. (Source: U.S. EPA,

California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Fertilizer Regulations:

  • Historically, there has been little or no regulatory oversight of the fertilizer industry. Minimum requirements relating to fertilizer labeling have been imposed at the state level by agricultural agencies. But federal environmental agencies have not played a major role. And the labeling requirements mandated at the state level have seldom gone beyond a guarantee that the nutrients on the label - e.g., nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium - match those in the bag. Prior to a recent promulgation of regulation in 2001, California’s labeling requirements focused on ensuring the basic elements such as the product name, net weight, volume, licensee’s name and address, and nutrient guarantees. See 3 C.C.R. § 2303(a)-(q).
  • On October 19, 2001, the CDFA passed new regulations that establish “non-nutritive standards” to clean up the arsenic, cadmium, and lead in fertilizers. The regulations also include labeling provisions that require disclosure of metals data so that consumers can make informed choices about the fertilizers they purchase.
  • The CDFA’s “non-nutritive standards” became effective January 1, 2002. They establish maximum concentration limits of arsenic, cadmium, and lead in fertilizer that vary depending upon the concentrations of specified nutritive constituents (iron, manganese, zinc and phosphate) in the fertilizer. The higher the concentration of “nutrients,” the more “non-nutritive” metals CDFA allows. 3 C.C.R. § 2302(a).
  • The CDFA’s labeling provisions became effective July 1, 2002. They require commercial fertilizer and agricultural mineral product labels to disclose laboratory results or list the maximum levels of nine heavy metals or, alternatively, list a toll-free telephone number or internet address that will provide such information. 3 C.C.R. § 2303(s), (u).

    CDFA Regulations: Title 3 of the California Code of Regulations, Sections 2302 and 2303

Other Fertilizer Laws: