How Phosphorus Helped Feed a World — And an Invasion of Algae

May 10, 2023

BookShelf: How Phosphorus Helped Feed a World — And an Invasion of Algae

“The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance”
By Dan Egan
W.W. Norton & Co. $30.00

Reviewed by Tom Henry

I’m a bit of a phosphorus nerd and an algae geek. Admittedly, more than just a bit. As I’ve said before, I never knew so much of my career would become hyperfocused on algae.

The Devil’s Element book cover

To me, though, one of the cool things about “The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance” is that it’s not hyperfocused on algae, or at least not to the degree I thought it would be, especially with the cover being a drone shot of a boat skimming through the stuff.

Yes, there’s a lot about Lake Erie, South Florida and other algae-plagued parts of the world in this book, written by former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel environmental writer Dan Egan. But what I find most fascinating about Egan’s research is his deep dive into the history of phosphorus that makes the reader hungry for more.

Phosphorus, as Egan explains, is a necessary evil. It nurtures life. But too much of it is a bad thing.

Who knew that bones of fallen soldiers who fought in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 would be looted for their rich deposits of calcium and phosphorus, and that mankind’s ability to feed itself as Earth’s population grew has been largely dependent upon the availability of phosphorus?

Who knew the critical roles that phosphorus and the phosphates associated with it have played in everything from rat poison to nerve gas?


‘Oceans of suds’

Here in the western Lake Erie region, phosphorus and nitrogen have been scorned because there’s so much of it. Many farm fields became so saturated with it over decades, the notion being that more must be better.

But the war against algal blooms isn’t just controlling what’s put on the soil in the form of liquid manure from year to year. It’s also the problem of “legacy phosphorus” — that is, fields with such relentless dosings of the nutrient that it will take years for phosphorus concentrations in them to subside, even if all new applications of manure and commercial fertilizers ended tomorrow.

Phosphates in detergents were another problem and Egan provides a humorous anecdote about how the once phosphate-rich Tide got its name.

Decades ago, Proctor & Gamble learned that housewives who did most of the laundry were really enamored by bubbles. As washing machines began to make their way into the basements of American homes in the 1930s, the company wanted to create a product that would appeal to its bubble-loving consumers.

So along came Tide, which Proctor & Gamble marketed as a detergent that could make “oceans of suds.” Ah, marketing. Where would we be without it?


All of the phosphates in detergents

created a windfall of nutrients in rivers

and streams, providing a feast for hungry

algae blooms in large bodies of water.


The problem, of course, was that all of the phosphates in Tide and other detergents created a windfall of nutrients in rivers and streams, providing a feast for hungry algal blooms out in Lake Erie and other large bodies of water.

Amazingly enough, the problem with laundry detergents might never have gotten so far out of whack if it hadn’t been for a chemist who showed Proctor & Gamble that superdosing its product with phosphorus would make clothes less stiff and crusty in washing machines.

Eventually, after Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972, phosphates were removed from laundry detergents. Water quality quickly improved — until the modern era of big agriculture and its manure-management issues came along.


Nitpicking Lake Erie material

Overall, I liked Egan’s book and was intrigued how he thought he could find enough material about a chemical element.

What I found disappointing was the section about Lake Erie, one which I expected to devour the most. Having covered Lake Erie for so long myself, I know I’m biased and have insight that the casual reader doesn’t. But I got an empty feeling in my gut about Egan’s research for it in this book and for his highly acclaimed first book, “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” (which I reviewed earlier).

In both books, I saw lost opportunities when he shifted his focus to Lake Erie.

For instance, I was bothered by the way he presented information from Bill Myers, a farmer in the Toledo suburb of Oregon, Ohio, whose field is close to the lakeshore. Egan said that Myers “acknowledges the existence of a superpolluting minority, speculating that about 20 percent of the farmers in the basin do about 95 percent of the manure polluting.”

Speculating? About 95 percent? Really?

Or this vague passage: “He can understand why people like [activist Sandy] Bihn are pushing politicians to better regulate how farmers manage their manure because the situation is becoming increasingly unacceptable.”

There is a lot of supporting documentation out there from university researchers, including one I know who specializes in studying the attitudes of farmers across Ohio themselves — including different generations and their mindsets — and why certain ones will or won’t embrace more eco-friendly practices, even when there is money available to help pay for them.

I also was surprised by other omissions. For instance, Egan referred to a former International Joint Commission chairman for a salient point he was making in the book but didn’t name which one.

The IJC, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a State Department-level agency created in 1909 to help the United States and Canada resolve issues affecting the boundary waters the two nations share. It does a lot of Great Lakes work, naturally (although its focus isn’t limited to that region).

These nitpicks make me wonder if Egan would have looked up names or done more research for certain parts of the book if he wasn’t writing the bulk of it from his Honda Odyssey minivan. Not kidding. That’s where he sequestered himself from his family for various reasons during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a lot of his writing took place on his laptop while sitting in the family’s parked automobile.


‘Baby diapers and moldy bread’

On the other hand, Egan does other things very well. Like his great description of the health effects of toxin exposure, something I experienced myself in 2010 after drawing some samples from Lake Erie water near Maumee Bay State Park.

His anecdote was from a South Florida source, John Cassani, whom he was hoping would take him and other reporters out on Lake Okeechobee, as he’d done in the past.

But Cassani canceled the trip because of burning lungs, itchy eyes and a dry cough he attributed to fumes floating off rotting algae (it should be noted here, though, that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not have an established protocol for attributing such health problems to algal toxin exposure).

“He described the stench as ‘kind of a mixture of baby diapers and moldy bread,’” Egan wrote, adding that his subject also complained of a gagging sensation and an urge to vomit.

Most importantly, he clearly spells out our maddening addiction to phosphorus, such as in this passage quoting biologist Paul Gray:


‘We keep adding more phosphorus and

we keep expecting water quality to get

better.  It’s the kind of thing a kindergartner

wouldn’t believe, but everybody else seems to.’

                                         — Paul Gray, biologist


“We keep adding more phosphorus [to the land] and we keep expecting water quality to get better. It’s the kind of thing a kindergartner wouldn’t believe, but everybody else seems to,” Gray states. “Every day we expect things to get better, and every day they are actually getting worse.”

Egan ends with an intriguing look-ahead at mankind’s relationship with phosphorus.

Many of us know about human sewage sludge that gets spread on farm fields. It’s not just cow manure, but ours, too.

Egan writes about the potential for technology to redo our plumbing and our infrastructure so that human solids and urine could be diverted for beneficial uses, especially if soil ever becomes phosphorus-depleted from Earth’s rapidly growing population.

Yes, growing crops in human waste from phosphorus recovery and recycling.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. Definitely not socially acceptable yet. Nor is it financially practical. But it’s a good anecdote to show the reader how mankind’s relationship with phosphorus continues to change and evolve.

Tom Henry is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor and created The (Toledo) Blade’s environment beat in 1993. He and Dan Egan were among three individuals the Chicago-based Great Lakes Protection Fund chose to receive its first-ever Leadership Award for Communication Excellence in 2020.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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