What’s going to kill us this week?

Well, it’s phosphorus. So well done if you had that on your bingo card this morning.

Too much phosphorus is going to kill us, and too little phosphorus… er… that’s also going to kill us.
It does seem like phosphorus is one of those things that you have to get just right. And also that we’re doing really badly at that.

Too much phosphorus is being used in fertilisers, which are then running off into waterways and creating massive blooms of algae. When that algae dies off, it releases a lot of methane, which is a major contributor to climate change. And brilliantly, because of that climate change, more algal blooms will form in the future, which will result in more methane being release.

It’s a good example of a viscous circle (because the algae makes the water a bit thicker).

And because we’re using too much phosphorus in fertilisers, it’s likely that in a few years time, there won’t be enough phosphorus to go around, so we won’t be able to make fertilisers, and so we won’t be able to grow crops as efficiently, meaning food shortages and famine for millions – if not billions – around the world.

Happy days.

Aside from the direct issues caused by too much or too little phosphorus, there are spin-off problems as well. Like the researchers into those phosphorus problems coming up with this sort of thing:

“We have reached a critical turning point,” said Prof Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University. “We might be able to turn back but we have really got to pull ourselves together and be an awful lot smarter in the way we use phosphorus. If we don’t, we face a calamity that we have termed ‘phosphogeddon’.”

No, Phil. No. I value your work, and I am genuinely concerned about the warnings you are giving us. It’s clearly important that mankind changes the way that we are using phosphorus. But what’s also clear is that you should stick to the science, and let the English language experts come up with any new terminology to describe your results. Because ‘phosphogeddon’ is an absolute car crash of a word, and detracts from your important research.

Adding a scary suffix to just any word might be linguistically correct, but it doesn’t necessarily make for catchy terminology that’s going to be memorable and therefore influence public behaviour. And I feel that I need to take a stand on this, because otherwise, we’re surely headed for a portmanteaupocalypse.

That would mean fewer deaths because of erratic weather and worsening food security, but many, many more facepalms at terrible attempts to make words to describe concerning over- and underuse of chemical elements and the like.

We can still change this now and make a difference.