SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.78 número2Respuesta de Lilium sp. al fósforo y su relación con Glomus fasciculatum y Bacillus subtilisControl biológico de la marchitez del chile (Capsicum annuum L.) por Bacillus thuringiensis índice de autoresíndice de materiabúsqueda de artículos
Home Pagelista alfabética de revistas  

Servicios Personalizados




  • No hay articulos citadosCitado por SciELO

Links relacionados


Phyton (Buenos Aires)

versión On-line ISSN 1851-5657

Phyton (B. Aires) vol.78 no.2 Vicente López jul./dic. 2009



Effects of nitrogen fertilization on heavy metal content of corn grains

Efectos de la fertilización nitrogenada en el contenido de metales pesados de granos de maíz

Rui Yu-kui, Zhang Fu-suo, Shen Jian-bo

College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, Beijing; Key Laboratory of Plant Nutrition, MOA, Beijing; Key Laboratory of Plant- Soil Interactions, MOE, Beijing 100193, P.R China.

Address Correspondence to: Rui Yu-kui, Yuanmingyuan Xilu No. 2, Haidian District, Beijing City, P.R.China. Tel: 8610-62733617; Fax: 8610-62731016; e-mail:

Recibido-Received 16.03.2009.
Aceptado-Accepted 30.05.2009.

Abstract. Nitrogen fertilization has played a significant role in increasing crop yield, and solving problems of hunger and malnutrition worldwide. However, excessive nitrogen inputs do not significantly increase crop yields but may lead to many serious environmental problems. The effects of nitrogen fertilization rate were studied on heavy metal content of corn grains. Our results show that nitrogen fertilization management is beneficial for reducing production costs, protecting the environment, and improving the quality of farm products.

Key words: Heavy metals; Nitrogen fertilization; Corn grain; Food safety; ICP-MS.

Resumen. La fertilización nitrogenada ha tenido un rol significativo en incrementar los rendimientos de los cultivos, y resolver problemas de hambre y malnutrición en todo el mundo. Sin embargo, la fertilización nitrogenada excesiva no incrementa los rendimientos de los cultivos significativamente sino que puede conducir a severos problemas ambientales. Los efectos de la tasa de fertilización nitrogenada se estudiaron en el contenido de metales pesados en granos de maíz. Nuestros resultados muestran que el manejo de la fertilización nitrogenada es benéfico para reducir los costos de producción, proteger el ambiente, y mejorar la calidad de productos agrícolas.

Palabras clave: Metales pesados; Fertilización con nitrógeno; Granos de maíz; Seguridad alimenticia; ICP-MS.


Several heavy metals, especially Pb and Cd, are toxic to humans if their intake exceeds a critical value. As a result of the environment, there are heavy metals in foods, such as beverages and food drinks (Onianwa et al., 1999), edible oil (Mendil et al., 2008) and crop grains and cereals (Cuadrado et al., 2000). It is very important to (1) control the content of heavy metals and (2) find methods to control it in foods. Since 1994, China set the tolerance limits of cadmium and lead in foods (Chinese National Standard Agency, 1994a; Chinese National Standard Agency, 1994b). The EU legislation also set threshold limits for concentrations of heavy metals in foods (EC, 2002). Thus, governments have begun to pay an increased attention to food safety, regarding limits in heavy metal food concentrations. Concentrations of heavy metals in food have been shown to be closely related to heavy metal concentrations in soil (Krauss et al., 2002). Crop species, tillage systems (Lavado et al., 2001) and field management (i.e.: quality of irrigation water) (Rattan et al., 2005) can also affect food heavy metal concentrations. However, effects of nitrogen fertilization on concentrations of heavy metals in corn grain have not yet been reported.
Nitrogen fertilization is necessary for growth and development of plants. However, applications of nitrogen fertilizer have largely exceeded plant needs in China (Ju et al., 2006; Hu et al., 2006). Excessive and inappropriate nitrogen fertilizer applications can result in severe environmental and ecological problems (Hans, 2006; Ju et al., 2006; Clemens et al., 2008).
Since 2008, there has been much attention on food safety (Cordell et al., 2009; Editorial of Soil & Tillage Research, 2009; Ni et al., 2009; Khan et al., 2009). Yield increases and crop quality are two important challenges for modern agriculture.
We investigated the effects of nitrogen fertilization on the concentration of heavy metals in corn grain. Thereafter, the relationship between nitrogen fertilizer input versus heavy metal level is discussed.


Corn seeds. The corn cultivar Denghai 3719 was used, whose seeds were produced and presented by Shandong Denghai Seeds Co., Ltd.

Fertilizers. They were (1) urea (total N≥46.4%, produced by PetroChina Ningxia Petrochemical Company, Beijing xilu No. 1338, Yinchuan city of Ningxia province, P.R China); (2) superphosphate (total P2O5 ≥ 16%, produced by Yunnan Honglin Chemicals Co., Ltd, Kaiyuan city of Yunnan Province, R. P. China); (3) KCl (total K2O ≥ 60% produced by Ural Potassium fertilizer joint-stock company (Berezniki city of Perm state, Russia); (4) ZnSO4 (ZnSO4≥ 95% produced by Shandong Zouping Zhenzhong Chemicals Co., Ltd., Zouping city, Shandong province of P.R. China).

Experimental procedures
Field management
Field experiments were carried out at the Shangzhuang experimental station, China Agricultural University, Beijing, from 25 April to 20 September 2007. Individual plants were planted at a rate of 100000/hm2. Every treatment was repeated four times.
Physico-chemical soil properties can be found elsewhere (Hu et al., 2006).

Fertilization scheme
P fertilizer, K fertilizer and Zn fertilizer were applied as basal fertilizer. One third of N fertilizer was applied as basal fertilizer before planting, and 2/3 of N fertilizer was applied as topdressing fertilizer on 12th June.
The concentration of mineral nitrogen (Nmin) in basal soil before basal fertilizer application was 62 kg/ha. CK Treatment: No N fertilizer was used during the whole growth period of corn, which is the zero control; CON treatment: fertilizing according to local farmer practices; OPT treatment: fertilizing to obtain the best ratio of yield to input; OPT+30% treatment: nitrogen fertilizer input was 30% more than OPT treatment; OPT-30% treatment: nitrogen fertilizer input was 30% less than optimized treatment (Table 1).

Table 1. Fertilization scheme of N fertilizer (kg/ha).
Tabla 1. Esquema de fertilización con N (kg/ha).

Detecting methods. Corn grain powder (0.5 g) was weighed, digested with 1.5 mL HNO3 and 0.5 mL H2O2, diluted to 10 mL. The digestion procedure was as follows: 150°C for 15 min at 500 W power, 200°C for 20 min at 800 W power and 100°C for 10 min at 400 W power. Diluted solutions were subjected to analysis for Pb and Cd by ICP-MS (ELAN DRCII, PE company of USA).

Parameters of Apparatus. For parameters of Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) refer to Rui et al. (2007) and Chen et al. (2009): power, 1350 W; flow rate of cooling gas (Ar), 15.0 L/min; flow rate of supplemental gas (Ar), 1.80 L/min; flow rate of carried gas (Ar), 0.95 L/min. Parameters of Mass Spectrometry: vacuum of analysis room, 5.89×10-6 Tor r; impulse voltage, 950 V. Detection parameters: resolution (10% peak height); 0.8amu (Nor), 0.6 amu (H); retention period, 50ms; times of replication, 4; times of circulation, 10; mode of analysis, scanning of mass; period of analysis, 1.05 min; rate of sample, 1ml/min.

Stability study and standard curve. Extraction from the same sample was repeatedly injected into ICP-MS during 2 hours. RSD was less than 3% after 30 min, and less than 4% after 2 hours. This indicates that the instruments and the extracting solution were stable over a 2-hour period.
Concentrations of Cd and Pb were detected using this method. The correlation coefficients (r2) for both standard curves was 0.9999.

Statistical analysis. Data were analyzed by one-way analysis of variance using SPSS 11.5 for Windows, and Excel (n=3).


Relationship between nitrogen fertilizer input versus Cd and Pb contents. Cadmium content in corn grain was positively related to the Napierian logarithm of nitrogen fertilizer input (Fig. 1). This indicates that nitrogen fertilizer input should be reduced to have a lower Cd content in corn grain.
Content of Pb in corn grain was negatively related to nitrogen fertilizer input (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1. Relationship between Cd concentration in corn grain and total Nmin in soil.
Fig. 1. Relación entre la concentración de Cd en granos de maíz y N mineral en el suelo.

Fig. 2. Relationship between Pb concentration in corn grain and total Nmin in soil.
Fig. 2. Relación entre la concentración de Pb en granos de maíz y N mineral en el suelo.


Nitrogen fertilizer has played a significant role in increasing crop yield and solving problems of hunger and malnutrition. Ju et al. (2009) showed that excessive nitrogen inputs did not significantly increase crop yields but led to much larger N losses to the environment; this resulted in serious environmental problems (Ju et al., 2009). This implies that application rates of nitrogen fertilizer to crops, which are the same as the OPT treatment in this study, become increasingly important (Zhu, 2006). Content of Cd in corn grain was positively correlated to nitrogen fertilizer input (Fig. 1). Correlation between N fertilizer input and content of Pb in corn grain, however, was negative (Fig. 2). The OPT treatment showed a better heavy metal quality than any of other nitrogen fertilizer treatments in this study.


This study shows that managing N fertilization is beneficial for (1) reducing production costs, (2) protecting the environment, and (3) improving quality of farm products.


Financial support from the (1) National Project of Scientific and Technical Supporting Programs in the Eleventh Five-year Plan Period Funded by Ministry of Science& Technology of China (NO 2006BAD25B02), (2) Innovative group grant of National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC, No.30821003) and (3) Ministry of Agriculture, Best Nutrient Management Technology Research and Application (No. 200803030) is greatly acknowledged.


1. Chen, Ji-luan, Ji-hong Wu, Ying Jiang & Xiao-song Hu (2009). Determination of Mineral Elements in Eight Pear Varieties by ICPMS after Microwave-Assisted Digestion. Spectroscopy and Spectral Analysis 29: 496-498.         [ Links ]

2. Chinese National Standard Agency (1994a). Tolerance limit of cadmium in foods. GB 15201-1994 (in Chinese).         [ Links ]

3. Chinese National Standard Agency (1994b). Tolerance limit of lead in foods. GB 14935-1994 (in Chinese).         [ Links ]

4. Clemens S., W. Reiner, K. Kirsten, I. Nazar & E. Ruzimboy (2008). Nitrous oxide emissions from fertilized, irrigated cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) in the Aral Sea Basin, Uzbekistan: Influence of nitrogen applications and irrigation practices. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 40: 290-301.         [ Links ]

5. Cordell, D., J.O. Drangert & S. White (2009). The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. Global Environmental Change, doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2008.10.009.         [ Links ]

6. Cuadrado, C., J. Kumpulainen, A. Carbajal & O. Moreiras (2000). Cereals Contribution to the Total Dietary Intake of Heavy Metals in Madrid, Spain. Journal of food composition and analysis 13: 495-503.         [ Links ]

7. EC, European Commission (2002). Commission Regulation (EC) No 257/2002 of February 2002, amending Regulation (EC) No 194/97 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs and regulation (EC) No 466/2001 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs. Official Journal of the European Commission L41/12.         [ Links ]

8. Editorial. Soils and world food security (2009). Soil & Tillage Research 102: 1-4.         [ Links ]

9. Hans W. P. (2006). Assessing and managing nutrient-enhanced eutrophication in estuarine and coastal waters: Interactive effects of human and climatic perturbations. Ecological Engineering 26:40- 54.         [ Links ]

10. Hu K. L., B.G.. Li, Y.Z. Lv, Z.Q. Duan, Z.Z. Li, G..T. Li & D.F. Sun (2006). Spatial variation of physico-chemical properties in Shangzhuang experimental station of China Agricultural University (in Chinese with English abstract). Journal China Agricultural University 11: 27-33.         [ Links ]

11. Ju X.T., C.L. Kou, F.S. Zhang & P. Christie (2006). Nitrogen balance and groundwater nitrate contamination: Comparison among three intensive cropping systems on the North China Plain. Environmental Pollution 143:117-125.         [ Links ]

12. Khan, S., Munir A. Hanjra & Jianxin Mu (2009). Water management and crop production for food security in China: A review. Agricultural Water Management 96: 349-360.         [ Links ]

13. Krauss, M., W. Wilcke, J. Kobza & W. Zech (2002). Predicting heavy metal transfer from soil to plant: potential use of Freundlich-type functions. Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science 165: 3-8.         [ Links ]

14. Lavado, R.S., C.A. Porcelli & R. Alvarez (2001). Nutrient and heavy metal concentration and distribution in corn, soybean and wheat as affected by different tillage systems in the Argentine Pampas. Soil and Tillage Research 62: 55-60.         [ Links ]

15. Mendil, D., Ö.D. Uluözlü, M. Tüzen & M. Soylak (2008). Investigation of the levels of some element in edible oil samples produced in Turkey by atomic absorption spectrometry. Journal of Hazardous Materials, doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2008.10.046.         [ Links ]

16. Ni, Hong-Gang & Hui Zeng (2009). Law enforcement is key to China's food safety. Environmental Pollution doi:10.1016/ j.envpol.2009.02.002.         [ Links ]

17. Onianwa, P.C., I.G. Adetola, C.M.A. Iwegbue, M.F. Ojo & O.O. Tella (1999). Trace heavy metals composition of some Nigerian beverages and food drinks. Food Chemistry 66: 275-279.         [ Links ]

18. Rattan, R.K., S.P. Datta, P.K. Chhonkar, K. Suribabu & A.K. Singh (2005). Long-term impact of irrigation with sewage effluents on heavy metal content in soils, crops and groundwater-a case study. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 109: 310-322.         [ Links ]

19. Rui, Yu-kui, Jing Guo, Kun-lun Huang, Yin-hua Jin & Yun-bo Luo (2007). Application of ICP-MS to the Detection of Heavy Metals in Transgenic Corn. Spectroscopy and Spectral Analysis 27: 796-798.         [ Links ]

20. Xiao-Tang Ju, Guang-Xi Xing, Xin-Ping Chen, Shao-Lin Zhang, Li-Juan Zhang, Xue-Jun Liu, Zhen-Ling Cui, Bin Yin, Peter Christiea, Zhao-Liang Zhu & Fu-Suo Zhang (2009). Reducing environmental risk by improving N management in intensive Chinese agricultural systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Doi:10.1073/pnas.0813417106.         [ Links ]

21. Zhu Z.L. (2006). On the methodology of recommendation for the application rate of chemical fertilizer nitrogen to crops (in Chinese with English abstract). Plant Nutrition and Fertilizer Science 12: 1-4.         [ Links ]

Creative Commons License Todo el contenido de esta revista, excepto dónde está identificado, está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons