Illustration by Bob AulNot nearly as famous as Miracle-Gro or Bandini, Ironite is a natural fertilizer for home garden use. Manufactured in Arizona since 1987, it's available at local Lowe's stores and Home Depots and is fairly popular nationwide. The Orange County Register garden writer Cindy McNatt even recommended it on March 1 for yellowing plants suffering from iron deficiency.

Ironite is also one of the most controversial substances you can spread on your lawn. It's illegal in Canada and under increasing scrutiny in at least four states, including California.

Last July, the San Francisco-based Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) sued Ironite Products Co. for selling a potentially "toxic-laden home fertilizer containing high levels of arsenic and lead," as well as allegedly "deceiving consumers through a false advertising campaign that promotes its Ironite fertilizer as safe for the environment and human health." ELF president Jim Wheaton also says Ironite violates California's Department of Agriculture standards for lead and arsenic toxicity.

Ironite is made from "mine tailings" or the leavings from the old Iron King mine in Humboldt, Arizona. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually considers mind tailings to be hazardous waste, and the Iron King mine is an active federal Superfund Site.

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It's ironic, then, that Ironite founder and president Heinz Brungs says Ironite is his answer to artificial fertilizers that deposit dangerous levels of phosphorus and potassium in the environment. Ironite replaces natural minerals that have been taken out of the soil by mining.

"It just makes sense," said Brungs. "You take an ore deposit, grind it up and then put it back into the earth."

Canadian officials didn't see it that way. In 1997, they banned the sale of Ironite, saying the company had failed to prove the product was safe, as required under national law. A year later, the Seattle Times commissioned a rigorous chemical study of various fertilizers, including Ironite. Their results, published that year, showed Ironite contained a lot more arsenic and lead than it should have. Using that story, Washington state agricultural officials carried out their own studies. An analysis available at the Washington Department of Agriculture website shows the "1-0-0" concentration of Ironite—made especially for alkaline soils and available locally—contains an arsenic intensity of 4,380 parts per million (ppm) and 2,910 ppm of lead. Data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) show similar findings of 3,000 to 6,000 ppm for arsenic and 3,400 ppm for lead.

"The [MDH] is concerned about Ironite because it poses an acute risk to children who may directly ingest the product," states an MDH website on Ironite. "Children may also be at risk if they are indirectly exposed to Ironite applied on lawns, parks and other play areas. Children are especially vulnerable to arsenic and lead because they frequent hand-to-mouth activity and other behaviors that increase the potential for exposure to these contaminants."

Citing worries that children playing in gardens spread with Ironite were at risk to arsenic and lead exposure—both heavy metals are known to be toxic—Washington state immediately moved to change Ironite labeling. Officials there got Ironite to agree to take the phrases "does not pollute," "environmentally safe" and "even if you apply two or three times the prescribed amount" off the packaging.

"Environmentally safe" may be gone from Ironite bags, boxes and spray bottles, but it still appears on the company website (Ironite.com). Current Ironite packaging also contains no mention of any arsenic or lead in the product or any safety warnings beyond "keep out of reach of children and pets." Ironite bags are also stamped with the curious phrase "If accidentally ingested, it is not acutely toxic."

The Ironite company has long insisted its products are safe, saying they are "produced from naturally occurring rock containing essential minerals." For just as long, spokesmen have denied that Ironite contains arsenic and lead, saying only that the product contains the ores arsenopyrite and galena.

According to the company, these ores are not "bioavailable," meaning they won't break down in the environment over time. Company officials say the arsenopyrite and galena in Ironite will only release the arsenic and lead within them respectively if you heat them to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit—an occurrence highly unlikely to happen on your front lawn.

Indeed, a 1998 report conducted by the Arizona Department of Health Services states that Ironite "does not appear to represent a health risk to residents of homes where it is used if the product is applied in accordance with recommendations on the label." In fact, Brungs considers Ironite so safe that he has been drinking Ironite for at least the past 10 years.

"I put a little Ironite in some water, stir it around, let it settle and then drink it," said Brungs. "I drink it twice a week. It gives me the minerals I need. I first tried it when I was drunk, and it cured my hangover. It tastes like iron and sulfur. It reminds me of my youth—you know, the water in the Roman mineral baths? But I don't recommend anyone drinking it."

Brungs says his company has conducted numerous toxicity studies and says they all show Ironite is safer than table salt. But even if he's correct, there's still the issue of bioavailability, which the Minnesota Department of Health says "is far from settled." On Feb. 26, 2001, one MDH environmental scientist explained the department's view to the U.S. EPA.

"MDH concluded that these data were insufficient because bioavailablity depends on many factors, including weathering, which was not accounted for in the experimental conditions," wrote Chuck Stroebel of the MDH's Health Risk Assessment Unit. "It also seems unlikely that the nutritive metals in Ironite would be bioavailable to plants while the contaminants, such as arsenic and lead, would not (over the long term)."

Meantime, Ironite remains for sale in California. An attorney for the Environmental Law Foundation says the lawsuit is in the discovery stage and will probably come to trial sometime this summer.

Brungs predicts he will prevail. "ELF picked up all the false information and then sued us," he said. "I'm very confident we will win once we can get in front of the judge and jury and show our studies. Unfortunately, in this country, everyone can sue everybody."

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