Fertilizer dust control, facility hygiene, and reduction of transfer points can make a significant difference.
The fertilizer industry, which grosses $139 billion annually (The Fertilizer Institute, 2015), faces a lot of modern challenges, from sustainability and regulatory hurdles to general worker safety. But perhaps the industry’s biggest challenge is dust. Dust-related problems can have a detrimental impact on worker health, product effectiveness, explosion risk, and the environment. Finding a solution is critical for any fertilizer facility that wants to produce the best product and run a sound operation.
4 Common Dust-Related Problems
Though a failure to control dust can have a slew of negative effects, there are four key problems that have the potential to cause the biggest disruption.
Cross-contamination of fertilizers
One of the most concerning dust problems is drift, both inside the processing facility and during application. Essentially, drift is the movement of fertilizer dust through the air (McAvoy, 2018). In the processing facility, fertilizer dust drifts into other products. This can cause nutrient pollution, the effects of which won’t be felt during manufacturing but will become apparent after application. With nutrient pollution (EPA, 2019), the soil receives excess nutrition, and when it rains, the excess nutrients wash into nearby water sources, which could be home to plant or aquatic life, or could be the source of local drinking water. There’s also drift after application, in which fertilizer dust drifts to untreated areas. This can kill or severely damage other crops, resulting in low yields.
Without proper fertilizer dust control, dust blows around the processing facility and ends up in other products, gets inhaled by workers, and clogs up machinery. This is a two-fold problem – equipment will need to be repaired or replaced more often but, even more important, product will be lost. It’s impossible to recoup the labor and material costs that went into producing a lost product.
In some instances, dust buildup can lead to combustible dust explosions. For example, in 2001, French agricultural chemical company AZF suffered a massive explosion at its Toulouse plant (CNN, 2001). 240 people were injured and nearby areas had to be evacuated. Combustible dust explosions are caused by a perfect storm of oxygen, heat, and a sufficient quantity and concentration of dust particles (OSHA, 2014). The enclosed space of a processing facility or factory adds in pressure, and the explosion occurs.
Inhalation of fertilizer dust can prove lethal for workers over time. In 2000, two Florida women sued their former employer because their constant exposure to fertilizer dust had caused immune and respiratory system problems (Burstein, 2000). High nitrous oxide concentrations from fertilizer dust were linked to higher occurrences of childhood asthma in parts of California (Schlanger, 2018). And in general, studies have shown fertilizer dust has caused respiratory disease (Schenker, et al, 1998) and acute symptoms like coughs and chest tightness (Rahman, Bråtveit, and Moen, 2007).
Though these dust-related challenges can seem overwhelming and dangerous, there are some viable ways to put fertilizer dust control processes in place in your facility.
Solutions for Dust-Related Challenges
There are four primary ways to approach solutions for the serious dust-related challenges outlined above.
Robust facility hygiene practices
A pristine facility helps ensure that dust is controlled, product is protected, workers are safe, and your product poses no risk to the surrounding environment. Your hygiene practices should include keeping fully stocked spill cleanup kits on hand and in easy-to-reach areas, cleaning up spills or leaks immediately, posting up-to-date hazard signage throughout storage areas, and keeping toxic chemicals separate in dry conditions. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Greenhouse Crops & Floriculture Program hosts an extensive and printable checklist for fertilizer storage and handling best practices on its website.
Reduce the number of transfer points
A lot can go wrong at each transfer point in your facility. A conveyer belt may not track correctly, which causes spillage of product. Spillage can lead to spreading of product, which can contribute to workers’ slips and falls. Spillage of product can also wear down equipment faster. And the more points the product passes through, the more opportunity there is for dust. If you reduce the number of transfer points in your facility, you also reduce the frequency and possibility of airborne dust. But in addition to reducing transfer points, you should ensure the ones you keep are more effective. This means working with an engineer to ensure conveyor belts track correctly, run smoothly, and prevent dust.
Use dust collection systems
Dust collection systems are designed to capture fertilizer dust. There are four types: exhaust hoods, duct systems, fan/motor systems, and dust collectors. Dust collection provides a lot of options to stop the flow of fertilizer dust. For example, dust collectors alone have four different unit types. But these systems aren’t regulated by a universal standard, which means facility safety and fertilizer dust control effectiveness can’t be guaranteed.
Use dust suppression methods
Dust suppression spray systems are the most effective fertilizer dust control option. These systems employ spray nozzles, which apply moisture directly to the fertilizer dust particulates in the air. The moisture weighs the particulates down, and they fall to the ground or return to their material source.
There are three types of spray systems – water, water and chemical combinations, and foam. The most effective of the three is the foam spray system. This combines water, chemicals, and air. Foam sprays add the least amount of moisture to product, have the highest coverage rate, and dry slowly, which ensures long-term trapping of fine particulates.
In general, dust suppression spray systems control dust and keep it from being airborne. The initial and ongoing costs are low, they’re easy to incorporate into your existing facility practices, they’re 99% effective, and there are several chemical options available.
One such option is DustAid, MinTech’s agricultural dust solution from our MinTerra product line. DustAid coatings work in all phases of the fertilizer process – manufacturing, transportation, and application – and ensures dust control for the life of the targeted material. Learn more about DustAid’s capability at mintech.com/minterra/dustaid/.
Fertilizer dust can wreak havoc in production facilities and on farms, with long-term negative impacts that can last for ages. Proper fertilizer dust control is a must for any ethical fertilizer processing facility, and the best way to ensure total dust control is through a three-pronged approach of robust facility hygiene, fewer transfer points, and a strong dust suppression program.
 The Fertilizer Institute. (2015). State of the Industry. Retrieved from: https://www.tfi.org/sites/default/files/State_of_the_Industry_(ind._pages)_-_may_16_-_km_.pdf
 McAvoy, Gene. (May 14, 2018). CEU Series: How to Understand and Manage Pesticide Drift. Retrieved from: https://www.growingproduce.com/crop-protection/ceu-series-how-to-understand-and-manage-pesticide-drift/
 EPA. (2019). The Sources and Solutions: Agriculture. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-agriculture
 CNN.com/World. (September 21, 2001). French factory blast kills 17. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/09/21/france.explosion/index.html
 OSHA. (2014). Hazard Alert: Combustible Dust Explosions. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/OSHAcombustibledust.pdf
 Burstein, Jon. (February 23, 2000). Fertilizer Dust Hurt Health, Suit Says. Retrieved from: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-2000-02-23-0002230170-story.html
 Schlanger, Zoë. (January 31, 2018). We knew fertilizer contaminates water. It turns out it contaminates air, too. Retrieved from: https://qz.com/1194589/weve-been-severely-underestimating-a-dangerous-type-of-air-pollution/
 Schenker, Marc B., et al. (November 1, 1998). Respiratory Health Hazards in Agriculture. Retrieved from: https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/ajrccm.158.supplement_1.rccm1585s1
 Rahman, Hamidur, Bråtveit, Magne, and Moen, Bente E. (2007). Exposure to Ammonia and Acute Respiratory Effects in a Urea Fertilizer Factory. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/oeh.2007.13.2.153