Nitrate is an inorganic compound that can be a natural or man made contaminant in drinking water. Nitrate (NO3), and its chemical cousin Nitrite (NO2), can cause methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby" disease. High nitrate levels can also indicate the presence of other pollutants, such as bacteria or pesticides, as these pollutants may follow the same path as the nitrate into the water supply.
In the presence of nitrite, the oxygen carrying hemoglobin in our blood can be converted to methemoglobin, which cannot carry oxygen. Adults have sufficient enzymes present in their blood to continually convert methemoglobin back to hemoglobin. Newborn infants, however, have lower levels of these enzymes and are thus more susceptible to this disease. High methemoglobin levels can lead to digestive and respiratory problems, anoxia, brain damage or even death. Once diagnosed, Methemoglobinemia can be readily reversed, although with anoxia permanent damage may have occurred. Methemoglobinemia can be prevented by restricting your consumption of nitrite and nitrate and by limiting the opportunities bacteria have to reduce nitrate in food to nitrite before consumption.
Nitrate and nitrite can be an indicator of more serious pollution problems as they are associated with septic waste and agricultural endeavors. Farmers and homeowners using nitrate bearing fertilizers often use a variety of pesticides and herbicides which may migrate to ground water supplies.
Due to its high solubility in water, nitrate is one of the most common contaminants in rural and suburban areas. In ground water, nitrate originates primarily from fertilizers, septic systems, and manure storage or spreading operations. Nitrate may also occur naturally due to the dissolution of nitrate bearing rock within the aquifer. With surface supplies, contamination can originate from indiscriminate surface water runoff (non-point sources) or identifiable sources of contamination such as industrial or municipal discharges (point sources).
The federal government has set drinking water MCL's of 10 mg/L for Nitrate-Nitrogen and 1 mg/L for Nitrite-Nitrogen. 1 mg/L is equivalent to 1 part per million (1 ppm). Short-term exposure to drinking water at or above these limits is a potential health problem primarily for infants.
Nitrate in drinking water can be effectively reduced in a number of ways. The best solution is to find an alternative water supply for drinking and cooking purposes. If other pollutants are not present, reverse osmosis systems, anion exchange units, and distillation can reduce nitrate and nitrite levels. The major drawback is that frequent testing is required to assure performance. Contact a reputable water treatment company to determine which method is best for your situation.
1. McCasland, M., Trautmann, N.M., Porter, K.S., and Wagenet, R.J. Nitrate: Health Effects in Drinking Water. Cornell Cooperative Extension, Fact Sheet, December 1985. p. 400.02.
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