Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 40, Issue 6, pp 2739–2759 | Cite as

Fertilizer usage and cadmium in soils, crops and food

  • M. W. C. Dharma-wardanaEmail author
Original Paper


Phosphate fertilizers were first implicated by Schroeder and Balassa (Science 140(3568):819–820, 1963) for increasing the Cd concentration in cultivated soils and crops. This suggestion has become a part of the accepted paradigm on soil toxicity. Consequently, stringent fertilizer control programs to monitor Cd have been launched. Attempts to link Cd toxicity and fertilizers to chronic diseases, sometimes with good evidence, but mostly on less certain data are frequent. A re-assessment of this “accepted” paradigm is timely, given the larger body of data available today. The data show that both the input and output of Cd per hectare from fertilizers are negligibly small compared to the total amount of Cd/hectare usually present in the soil itself. Calculations based on current agricultural practices are used to show that it will take centuries to double the ambient soil Cd level, even after neglecting leaching and other removal effects. The concern of long-term agriculture should be the depletion of available phosphate fertilizers, rather than the negligible contamination of the soil by trace metals from fertilizer inputs. This conclusion is confirmed by showing that the claimed correlations between fertilizer input and Cd accumulation in crops are not robust. Alternative scenarios that explain the data are presented. Thus, soil acidulation on fertilizer loading and the effect of Mg, Zn and F ions contained in fertilizers are considered using recent \(\hbox {Cd}^{2+}\), \(\hbox {Mg}^{2+}\) and \(\hbox {F}^-\) ion-association theories. The protective role of ions like Zn, Se, Fe is emphasized, and the question of Cd toxicity in the presence of other ions is considered. These help to clarify difficulties in the standard point of view. This analysis does not modify the accepted views on Cd contamination by airborne delivery, smoking, and industrial activity, or algal blooms caused by phosphates.


Cadmium Metal toxins Phosphate Crops Fertilizers Soils Food 



The author thanks Dr. Sarath Amarasiri for his comments and drawing attention to some references.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Research CouncilOttawaCanada
  2. 2.Université de MontrealMontrealCanada

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