Breaking Down the Nitrogen Myths

nitrogen eggs
Digester eggs at the recently upgraded Newtown Creek wastewater treatment facility (one of the largest which discharges into LIS) help break down sewage sludge to remove nitrogen. (photo credit


In this installment of “Ask Dr. K” Jason Krumholz decides to tackle a few of the common myths he hears about nitrogen pollution.

Dr. K: In this installment of the “Ask Dr. K” Blog, I’m going to do something a little differently. Usually I respond to a direct question that I’ve been asked by a student, resident, or stakeholder in Long Island Sound (LIS), but today I want to try to tackle a few common myths about nitrogen that I hear a lot. Thanks to Alison at Boston University for emailing me with some questions that prompted me to write this entry.

Here at the Long Island Sound Study, we’ve been heavily invested over the last year or so in revising our Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan or CCMP.. This document helps us set goals for what we hope Long Island Sound will look like in 20 years, and determine the steps necessary to meet those goals. Nitrogen is a big part of that. So it’s important that we understand what we’re dealing with here.

  • Myth 1−Nitrogen is bad, we need to get rid of all of it: Nitrogen is a building block of life, and the most abundant element in earth’s atmosphere. Without it, there could be no life as we know it on earth. Phytoplankton (tiny marine plants) which form the basis of our marine food web that supports our ecosystem and fisheries require nitrogen to grow. But too much of a good thing can cause problems. Excess nitrogen can cause large phytoplankton blooms that can contribute to hypoxia (low oxygen). High nitrogen levels can also create favorable conditions for harmful algal blooms (HABs) and growth of excess seaweed that can foul beaches. When we originally drafted our CCMP in 1994, we pledged to reduce nitrogen from human sources by over 50%, and we are over 90% of the way to reaching that goal as of 2014. We don’t expect the system to respond immediately to these changes, and we’re not 100% sure what the impact will be, because Long Island Sound is very different than it was 200 years ago, so we need to monitor the situation carefully to determine the extent of reductions that will be necessary.
  • Myth 2−If I use organic products, that’s better for LIS: A phytoplankton in LIS doesn’t care whether the molecule of nitrogen it’s taking up came from organic or inorganic fertilizer products, sewage, or automobile exhaust. While there has been a lot of discussion about the health benefits of using organic products like vegetables, lawn fertilizers, health products, etc… (and I don’t really want to get involved in that debate), those benefits are all benefits to human health, not to the health of LIS. Sustainable agriculture practices are important to the health of LIS, but from the perspective of LIS, we need to focus on reducing the amount of nitrogen we contribute, not on what kind of nitrogen it is.
  • Myth 3−Upgrading wastewater treatment plants is a waste of money: There is no doubt that advanced wastewater treatment is expensive. The equipment is costly, and there is substantial power demand associated with implementation. I can certainly see where the argument comes from that burning fossil fuels to generate power to mitigate nitrogen pollution is just trading one kind of pollution for another. As with anything, there are trade-offs, but our investments in wastewater treatment infrastructure over the last decade or so are keeping more than 30 million pounds of nitrogen per year out of Long Island Sound! Since sewage is the largest single source of nitrogen to LIS, it makes sense that we devote a large part of our efforts to mitigate excess nitrogen loading to this source, at least initially.
  • Myth 4−I don’t live near LIS, so this isn’t my problem: Nitrogen travels a long way, whether in groundwater from septic tank discharge, or in the streams that feed one of the rivers that eventually drains in to LIS, if you live in the Long Island Sound watershed, which includes almost all of Connecticut, and a large portion of Massachusetts, as well as smaller portions of New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and even a little bit of Quebec, your nitrogen ends up in Long Island Sound. Sure, you may not interact with LIS every day if you don’t live along its shoreline, but we still need your help to make sure that this valuable resource can be enjoyed for generations to come.

The phrase “think globally, act locally” has been around for decades, but it is as true now as ever before. So I’m particularly proud that the inspiration for this post comes from a student in Massachusetts, who’s doing a great job of acting on that motto. Thanks again Alison.


Jason Krumholz, aka Dr., K, is the NOAA liaison to EPA’s Long Island Sound Office. Dr. Krumholz received his doctorate in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.


Have a Sound Health question?


Send an e-mail to Jason Krumholz.. Dr. Krumholz  is a marine scientist working as the NOAA liaison to the EPA Long Island Sound Office. View more of Dr. K’s questions and answers on the Ask Dr. K blog.


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA or NOAA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA or NOAA do not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.


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