News Feature | October 27, 2017

Report: Nitrate Contamination Afflicts 15 Million Americans

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Nitrates are polluting the drinking water of more than 15 million people in 49 states and pose a particular threat in rural areas, according to a new report highlighting the scope of this kind of contamination.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) report “links the presence of chemicals to manure and fertilizer runoff into drinking water sources thanks to corn and soybean crops grown for industrial meat production,” the Arkansas Times reported.

The U.S. EPA’s limit for nitrate in drinking water is 10 ppm, since greater concentrations pose a threat to babies.

“Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the MCL [maximum contaminant level] could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue-baby syndrome,” the agency says.

But EWG’s report found many utilities are out of compliance.

The report “looked at water quality measurements from 50,000 utilities across the U.S., finding 118 water systems over the legal limit of 10 ppm. But there were 1,683 water systems — mostly in rural, farming communities in the Corn Belt and in California — over 5 ppm,” High Plains Public Radio reported.

The report framed nitrate as a public health threat, noting that the contaminant is a suspected carcinogen.

“People who drink water with elevated, but not illegal, levels of nitrates could be at an increased risk of kidney, ovarian and bladder cancer, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group asserts,” High Plains Public Radio reported.

The EWG report, titled "Trouble In Farm Country," noted that farm states are particularly vulnerable. The report cited California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas among the most vulnerable states. The highest levels of nitrates are found in small towns with row-crop farming.

Water utility officials have sometimes hit snags as they try to address the nitrate issue. One utility in Iowa tried to sue agriculture interests to pay for the problem of nitrate pollution, but the effort by Des Moines Water Works eventually floundered.

To read more about curbing nitrate pollution visit Water Online’s Nutrient Removal Solutions Center.