They say the road to a public health concern is paved with… a public health concern. That literally is happening in—where else?—Florida, where NPR reports state lawmakers have passed a bill (HB1191, which awaits governor Ron DeSantis’s signature) instructing the Florida Transportation Department to study the use of phosphogypsum as an aggregate material in road construction. Can’t pronounce “phosphogypsum?” That’s okay, all you really need to know is that the material is radioactive.
It’s a waste product of the fertilizer industry, a sort of slurry generated after phosphate rock is broken down in sulfuric acid to create phosphoric acid that’s then used in fertilizers. Phosphate rock can, per the EPA, contain uranium, thorium, and radium; therefore, phosphogypsum contains those icky materials’ “decay products.” In other words, it’s radioactive. Using phosphogypsum in road construction would therefore put road workers at increased risk of cancers, and, well, everyone else, too.
Anyone who’s purchased a home might recognize one of those decay products, too—radon gas. In certain parts of the country with higher concentrations of radon in the soil, it is common for homebuyers to have radon tests conducted on basements and such, and mitigation measures installed where needed to keep radon quantities in the air at acceptable levels.
If you’re curious why the Republican-dominated Florida legislature might specifically call for the state’s department of transportation to eyeball this unappetizing-sounding possible road aggregate material over, say, literally anything else, you’re not alone. Enter the state’s fertilizer industry, which goes through plenty of phosphate rock (the state sits on vast reserves of the stuff)—and also generates vast quantities of toxic phosphogypsum waste, which must be stored for a non-zero dollar sum in huge landfills. Unless, of course, it’s approved as an aggregate material for road construction…
Now, the Florida legislature is merely compelling the department of transportation to look into phosphogypsum’s use. As NPR notes, no large scale studies have addressed whether the material’s use has any appreciable impact on air quality, the surrounding soil, or groundwater. Ostensibly, should this bill be signed into law, Florida’s Transportation Department would consider those impacts. Or should.
There is one huge asterisk hanging over the whole thing, though: The EPA has a rule that does not allow phosphogypsum’s use in road construction, and the Florida bill states any final decision on its use must be in accordance with EPA regulations. So even if Florida continues down this legislative road, it might ultimately go nowhere, so long as the EPA’s current rules for phosphogypsum stay in place.
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