Fertilizer chemicals pose danger to creatures that live in water, North Carolina State University toxicologists have found.
The NC State researchers show that water fleas take up nitrates and nitrites and convert those chemicals into nitric oxide, which in turn causes developmental and reproductive problems - even at low concentrations.
"There's only limited evidence to suggest that animals could convert nitrates and nitrites to nitric oxide, although plants can," said Dr. Gerald LeBlanc.
"Since animals and plants don't have the same cellular machinery for this conversion, it appears animals use different machinery for this conversion to occur," he added.
The team saw that water flea babies were born on schedule but were underdeveloped; some lacked appendages important for swimming, for instance.
LeBlanc now plans to identify the mechanism behind nitric oxide's toxic effects; evaluate the relationship between nitrite and nitrate concentrations in the environment and developmental toxicity; and consider possible risks to humans.
He added that even though it is not possible to eliminate the need for fertilizers, it is important to ensure that the benefits of these chemicals outweigh their risks by keeping them out of surface waters.
The study is published in the Aug. 27 edition of PLoS One.