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BY JULIAN WHITCROSSE
MAY 12, 2012 4:10 PM
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Can peeing in a lake really kill fish?
There’s been a story kicking around in the news recently about a fight in Hamburg, Germany, where recreational swimmers have supposedly killed fish by peeing in Eichbaum Lake, making fishermen really (get ready) pissed off. Reading this set off my potential-Internet-baloney alarm bells: short articles, coming from a foreign country, based off one English-language report, with a spokesman from the Hamburger Angling Association as the main source. Is there anything to this? Can anything as natural as peeing in a lake kill the fish?
In a word, yes. Whether pee was the murder weapon in this particular whodunnit depends on some factors that aren’t clear from these scant reports, like how many people are swimming there and the chemistry of the lake. But urine certainly can kill fish, though it’s not actually the urine that does it.
Urine includes plenty of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, nutrients that are helpful for plant growth. In fact, those are the three main ingredients in both industrial fertilizer and natural fertilizers like manure. (The nitrogren in urine isn’t N2, the gas that makes up most of the atmosphere—it’s N3-, the “fixed” nitrogen that plants need.) If you let your pee sit around for a long while (I don’t recommend doing this, for obvious reasons), it will precipitate out an odorless fertilizer called struvite.
So if you add a lot of urine to a lake, you’re essentially dumping in a bunch of fertilizer, which cases a bloom of algae. After they’ve used up the fertilizer, the algae continue using oxygen, and when they die, their decomposition consumes still more, drastically lowering the levels of oxygen in the lake, which is what generally kills fish. The same kind of fish die-off happen whenagricultural run-off reaches rivers and lakes—the run-off includes lots of fertilizer, which is basically urine, after all. And Eichbaum’s fish may be facing an unusual additional danger: Hamburg University scientists have reportedly found a particular type of algae in the lake that actually releases a toxin.
Ultimately, it seems plausible that some seemingly harmless urine is actually harming the lake’s fish. It wouldn’t be the first time a large body of water faced the same risk: ecologists warn visitors not to pee when they visit the beautiful Great Barrier Reef (pictured above) for fear that algae blooms will kill the coral.
From the Blog
- “Ripple” one of 10 Best books 2011 – FrontierPsych
- I am pleased to announce my new book deal …
- Spreading the Ripples!
- Who to call to call when levees break or oil rigs explode? Check out my latest piece in Feb Mens Journal: THE MASTER OF DISASTER
- Finally, the extended Jack Black promo for Porcelain Springs!
"Both drought and flood are on the rise, and Alex Prud'homme, in this fine new account, helps you understand why. We've taken the planet's hydrology for granted for the 10,000 years of human civilization; that's a luxury we can no longer afford."
- Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet; founder of 350.org
"By illuminating the central issues -- water quality, water quantity, ownership, waste, infrastructure -- through the tales of individuals who wrestle with them, Alex Prud'homme makes a vast and desperately serious topic flow beautifully through the rocks and hard places that our planet is caught between"
- John Seabrook, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Flash of Genius
“The problem of water quantity, quality and use are upon us. Alex Prud’homme’s book identifies some of the culprits, including us inattentive citizens and the combination of regulations and markets needed to make clean water usable and available in the Twenty-first Century. This book should wake you up.”
- William D. Ruckelshaus, EPA Administrator under presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan
Tina Bennett | William Morris Endeavor
Ashley Fox | William Morris Endeavor
Erin Conroy | William Morris Endeavor
Reporting for The Ripple EffectReporting for the book I traveled from inside New York City’s new Water Tunnel No. 3 (the $6 billion water tunnel being drilled 600 feet beneath Manhattan) to the disputed aquifers of Poland Springs, ME, the “intersex” fish and Dead Zone of the Chesapeake Bay, poisoned wells and flooding rivers in the Midwest, the “water-energy nexus” in oil and gas fields, the failed levees of Katrina-wracked New Orleans, drought-threatened Las Vegas, California’s vulnerable San Francisco Delta, and up to the resource wars of the Alaskan Peninsula.