News Feature | July 7, 2015

Infants At Risk From Pennsylvania Nitrate Contamination

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Pennsylvania families are worried tap water contamination poses a threat to infants after nitrate levels spiked this year.

Explosive levels of nitrates prompted some York County residents to switch from well water to bottled water in recent weeks. The Soltis family, which includes a 6-month-old daughter, has been “drinking bottled water and using it to mix formula,” ABC27 reported.

The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrates in drinking water at 10 ppm. “Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the MCL could become seriously ill, and if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome,” the agency says.

When the Soltis family tested their well water this summer, their “nitrate levels were through the roof: 80 ppm,” the ABC27 report said. When the family tested their levels five years ago, also during the summer, “the results were 7 ppm, making current levels more than 10 times higher than five years ago.”

ABC27 also tested the level of nitrates in the family’s drinking water. “We found between 40 and 80 ppm of nitrate [at the Soltis home], a day after [they] tested [this year],” the report said.

The Clarkes, a family that lives near the Soltises, is also concerned about nitrates in their water. According to ABC27, the Clarke’s well water tested at about 20 to 40 ppm.

“I was terrified at first, right? Because this is my baby girl,” said Dan Clarke, who has a 5-month-old.

ABC27 reporters tested a local water source, the Conewago Creek, and found nitrate levels at 20 to 40 ppm.

Why did nitrate pollution spike this year? One theory, espoused by Bobby Soltis, is that contaminated runoff from a recent chemical plant fire in Adams County might be the cause. The June blaze contaminated local creeks.

“Much of what officials have been seeing in [creek water] is water-soluble compounds often used in fertilizers. Nitrates are nitrogen-oxygen compounds that fall into that classification, according to the EPA. So could the spill be the root of the nitrates in the creek, at least?” the York Dispatch asked.

John Repetz, spokesman for the state’s environmental agency, did not rule it out.

"That's a possibility,” he said, per the report. "But that could be something that's in the water every day."

“The state Department of Environmental Protection says there’s no clear evidence the contamination in the wells came from the chemical fire, or even the creek,” ABC27 added.

The fire posed a substantial risk to local drinking water in June, according to Penn Live:

Thousands of Adams County residents remained under mandatory water restrictions one day after a fire destroyed a fertilizer plant and led to the contamination of one of the main water sources in the region. Approximately 4,500 New Oxford residents continued to get their water from York County after public safety officials detected contaminants in the south branch of the Conewago Creek in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Miller Chemical and Fertilizer Corp., in Conewago Township just outside Hanover.

Runoff from the same fire was responsible for the death of at least 10,000 fish in the creek, according to the report.

For more news on well pollution, visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.