What Is The Connection Between Nitrate Concentration And Water Quality?

An illustration shows plants and one rabbit. Several arrows present how nitrites and ammonium convert to organic nitrogen.

Being Aware of Potential Contaminants

Also known by the formula NO3, a nitrate is an inorganic compound made up of one nitrogen molecule and three oxygen molecules. They occur naturally with the environment and represent an important source of nitrogen for plant life. Nitrogen makes up a key element of chlorophyll and plants use this green pigment to transform water and sunlight into energy.

This means farmers and other landowners often use NO3 based chemical fertilisers to ensure their soil provides a rich base from which crops can grow. However, when they have been absorbed by the soil, NO3 fertilisers can be transported to other deeper locations in flowing surface water or rain. It’s not just agricultural systems which can introduce NO3 however, as human and animal waste are other contributing factors in this type of contamination.

When the level of NO3 is elevated it can be found in water used by humans, most often these sources are shallow or ageing wells, or wells that are not located in an optimal position and are therefore open to contamination. It is usually the case that when nitrates appear in a drinking supply, there are a range of other issues with the water quality. This could mean more pesticides, microorganisms and unwanted compounds have also made it through.

What Is A Safe Level Of Nitrogen?

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a specific Maximum Contaminant Level for NO3-N or nitrate as nitrogen, this is 10 parts per million, which is expressed as 10 mg/L. At this level water is considered safe to drink by adults and children, but what happens if it goes above that mark?

When NO3-N levels reach higher than 10 parts per million in a supply, there can be consequences for humans who have been drinking it. The most immediate symptom is a lack of breath which occurs because the red blood cells are unable to move oxygen around effectively. In babies and very young children, the effects can be far worse. Infants of six months and under can contract a blood disorder known as blue baby syndrome, or methemoglobinemia to specialists. The initial symptoms are sickness, diarrhoea and excessive tiredness, but as there are many conditions that present similarly, blue baby syndrome can often be misdiagnosed until further indicators appear, like a bluish tinge to the skin and lips.

Moreover, according to the World Health Organisation, NO3 may have carcinogenic effects on the human body, especially in terms of gastric cancers. Their researchers also found a possible relationship between nitrate poisoning and problems with thyroid function. Therefore, it is vital for people who use a well as their primary source of drinking water to be aware of any aggravating factors in NO3 contamination and to carry out proper checks on a regular basis.

The Importance Of Regular Testing

When NO3 enters a water supply it is impossible to see, taste or smell, that’s why a testing kit is essential, especially in homes where children, elderly people or pregnant women live. These are the groups which will be worst affected by nitrate contamination and may suffer the most. The average dip test is not expensive and is widely available, but for a more comprehensive result, a well screening test may provide peace of mind. Although NO3 does occur naturally and is found in groundwater across the United States, it is present at a level far lower than that which could affect a person. However, the ubiquity of NO3 means that when a supply is first set up or if it is being used for the first time by a new family, a baseline test should be carried out. Tests are also essential when a new water supply is located and will be used as a drinking source.

Anyone living off-grid and reliant on a well should keep themselves informed of what can create a contamination problem. A well which is intended for domestic use should be tested annually if not more often when it is situated near livestock or waste disposal areas. Both of these are potential causes of contamination and can soon alter the nitrate concentration, as can the application of fertilisers which are rich in nitrogen, so follow-up tests are always a good idea. Whether there are risk factors nearby or not, any local supply which is used as drinking water needs to be checked at least every third year to ensure no gradual increase has built up.

If there is evidence of nitrate contamination, it is possible to buy treatment equipment and filters for the home to deal with the issue.


Image credit: sfbaywalk

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These information were not written by the American Food and Drug Administration, or any other official authority. This site and its products do not promise to diagnose and cure diseases, or protect you from them. Always consult your doctor when you are sick.