Should You Be Worried About Nitrate and Nitrogen Concentrations in Your Water?

Should You Be Worried About Nitrate and Nitrogen Concentrations in Your Water?

Nitrate or NO3 is a common form of nitrogen. Chemically, it is actually an anion that has a single negative charge. Since it is an anion, nitrate is water soluble. Nitrate is normally used as a source of nitrogen for plants. Unfortunately, when nitrate is used to promote plant growth, it can be passed into streams and lakes.

The Consequences of Nitrate in Water Sources

Excessive concentrations of greater than 5 milligrams per liter of nitrate or nitrogen in streams and lakes can cause some significant adverse effects. Depending on the water body, it can lead to excessive algae growth, accelerating aging or eutrophication to lakes and a loss of dissolved oxygen.

An inorganic form of nitrogen, such as nitrate is not a nutrient for humans or animals and can have some serious health implications. If nitrogen levels in drinking water exceed 10 milligrams per liter, it can cause methemoglobinemia in infants, otherwise known as “blue baby syndrome.” This condition is due to the compromised oxygen carrying capacity of blood cells that give the infant’s skin a blue hue. There have also been studies that have shown a possible link between high nitrate concentrations and an increased risk of developing cancer.

How Nitrate Enters Water Supplies

Nitrate can enter water supplies directly due to agricultural runoff, as nitrate based fertilizers can wash into streams, rivers, and lakes. Some forms of nitrate can also enter water supplies from the atmosphere when nitrogen containing compounds, such as automobile pollution are present. It is also possible for nitrate to be formed in water when more reduced forms of nitrogen such as ammonia or nitrite are oxidized.

How Are Nitrate Levels Regulated?

There are two sets of regulations relating to nitrates. The first are drinking water standards that have been in place since the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974. These standards are designed to protect us against adverse health effects. The second sets of regulations are ambient water standards that prevent excessive eutrophication in streams, lakes and other waterways.

Although some states may set their own standard for nitrate levels in drinking water, the EPA has set a maximum contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter. The ambient nitrate standards were set by each state, but the EPA has now stepped in and is setting guidelines to determine the maximum levels for various water bodies in regions throughout the U.S.

Protecting Your Drinking Water

While municipal supplies are regulated by the EPA, if you have concerns about nitrate in your drinking water or have a private well water supply, it is a good idea to take a multiple barrier approach.

The most effective and important strategy is preventing nitrate from entering water supplies. This involves managing any agricultural operations to minimize runoff. Some farms are now employing computerized maps to calibrate the optimum water and soil conditions to restrict fertilizer use. It is also essential to properly handle animal waste lagoons and manure to minimize animal waste being discharged to water sources.

In addition to preventing nitrate infiltrating water supplies, homeowners may wish to employ a final barrier of protection. There are a number of domestic water treatment systems that can eliminate any traces of nitrate to ensure that drinking water is safe for the whole family.

By Mark Williams (NicMar President Mark Williams holds degrees in Applied Science and Industrial Thermodynamics, along with Agricultural Mechanization and Systems Engineering from Ohio State University.  He also holds the highest possible industry ranking, being WQA (Water Quality Association) LEVEL 6 Certified.)

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