News Feature | December 9, 2016

Utility's Nitrates Levels Posed Risk To Infants, Regulators Say

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

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Arizona regulators kept a close watch on Johnson Utilities this week after samples showed that high nitrate levels had rendered tap water unsafe for infants.

“The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) warned Johnson Utilities' customers in Pinal County [on December 2] that high levels of nitrates in water made it unsafe for infants to drink,” Arizona Central reported.

“The statement, issued about 5 p.m., told customers not to give infants under 6 months old any tap water or use it in infant formula. It was issued, according to a spokeswoman, because Johnson Utilities had not contacted ADEQ or responded to agency representatives' inquiries about whether the company had notified its customers about the water-quality concern,” the report said.

Officials deemed the water safe for infants again on Tuesday. Before the advisory was lifted, utility officials and ADEQ staff offered contradictory accounts of the contamination threat allegedly posed by Johnson Utilities.

“Although Johnson Utilities said in a statement later evening [December 2] that more recent samples showed nitrate levels were within allowable standards, ADEQ officials as of Monday had not received any evidence that the water's nitrate levels meet allowable standards,” the report said.

Caroline Oppleman, ADEQ spokeswoman, said, per Arizona Central: "We still do not have any data from Johnson Utilities that demonstrates the water is meeting the federal standards."

Regulators at the ADEQ collected new samples on Monday, according to Arizona Central.

The U.S. 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.

“The nitrate standard for water is 10 mg/L; a water sample from Johnson Utilities water reportedly came back with nitrate levels of 12 mg/L and 11.4 mg/L,” ABC 15 reported.

Here’s why nitrate poses a risk to infants, per an EPA fact sheet:

Infants, however, receive the greatest exposure from drinking water because most of their food is in liquid form. This is especially true for bottle-fed infants whose formula is reconstituted with drinking water with high nitrate concentrations. Nitrate can interfere with the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to vital tissues of the body in infants of six months old or younger. The resulting illness is called methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby syndrome."

To read more about meeting federal nitrate standards visit Water Online’s Drinking Water Regulations And Legislation Solutions Center.

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