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Surprising Science

How Big Is Your Nitrogen Footprint?

Certain forms of nitrogen contribute to a host of health and environmental problems. A new tool helps individuals see how their lifestyle choices fit into the larger sustainability picture.

What’s the Latest Development?

A tool that’s currently being used in universities is increasing awareness of the connection between hazardous forms of nitrogen and an individual’s lifestyle choices. The N-Calculator, originally created by scientists in the US and the Netherlands and recently updated to include the UK, describes a user’s “nitrogen footprint” based on information entered about the food they eat and their travel methods, among other things. They can then compare their footprint with the average for their particular country (currently limited to the US, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands).

What’s the Big Idea?

Although nitrogen in its pure form makes up most of Earth’s atmosphere, reactive forms of it can damage human health and the environment. For example, nitrogen fertilizer is commonly used in agriculture, but the resulting excess changes the biosystems in nearby water sources. Because livestock eat grass that’s grown using this fertilizer, the bigger the animal, the more nitrogen is consumed as they reach market weight. Consequently, “beef generates twice as much nitrogen as pork, and almost three times as much as chicken or fish.” Reducing meat consumption results in a corresponding reduction in the size of one’s nitrogen footprint.

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