NSAC's Blog

New Report Raises Concerns about Health Impacts from Nitrate in Drinking Water

October 4, 2016

Drinking water

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to share the following guest post from National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) member organization, the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC). IEC’s new report provides a critical look at nitrogen pollution and public health in Iowa. As concerns around nutrient pollution and water quality continue to grow, NSAC recognizes and advocates for the critical role that farmers and ranchers have in protecting shared water resources.

By Ann Y. Robinson, Iowa Environmental Council Agriculture Policy Specialist.

On Thursday, September 29, the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) released a new report, “Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans”. The report contains an overview of research conducted in Iowa, the U.S. and abroad that indicates the health risks associated with nitrate in drinking water may go beyond “blue-baby syndrome”.

Since the 1960s, elevated levels of nitrate in water used for baby formula have been known to pose the risk of methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, a serious, potentially fatal condition that decreases the blood’s ability to carry vital oxygen through the body. As the report lays out, there is a growing body of research that suggests nitrate pollution may pose additional risks to public health, including birth defects, bladder cancer and thyroid cancer.

As the lead author on this report, I reviewed over 100 studies about the health effects of nitrates in drinking water and consulted with a number of health experts. Many of studies reviewed suggest there may be many other health problems linked to long-term ingestion of elevated nitrate concentrations: IEC chose to focus only on research results found in multiple human studies.

Most of the research reviewed by IEC found significant negative health outcomes at levels higher than the drinking water standard (10 mg/L nitrate-N). Some research, however, suggests that even concentrations lower than the standard may be harmful – especially when the water is also polluted with other harmful chemicals such as agricultural pesticides or naturally occurring arsenic.

While more research is needed, the current findings offer compelling reasons to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution from nitrate flowing into our surface and ground water from farm fields, urban yards, livestock facilities, water treatment plants and other sources.

In Iowa, elevated nitrate levels in our drinking and recreational waters have been a concern since the state was identified in the 1990s as a top contributor of the nitrate and phosphorus pollution that fuels the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, the issue has received increased attention due to a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three drainage districts in northwest Iowa, an area identified as a hot spot for nitrate pollution in the state and the Nation.

The health threats posed by nitrate pollution in drinking water sources extend beyond Iowa and the Midwest, however. This is neither an urban-only or rural-only problem, it is “both and”. Particularly at risk from this type of contamination, however, are rural residents who often depend on private wells where the water quality is unregulated and often untested.

In the IEC report, the importance of reducing nitrate pollution at the source is emphasized, and a watershed approach to bring urban and rural citizens together to solve pollution problems is strongly recommended. This report offers not just dire warnings of health impacts, but also compelling reasons for a greater commitment to sustainable agricultural practices that reduce pollution and build the soil’s capacity to retain water and nutrients.

We applaud those who are taking responsibility to help clean up our water, but more action is needed. Water is essential for life, and we have a shared responsibility to preserve our natural resources today and for future generations.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

Comments are closed.