Nitrate in Drinking Water Can Lead to Severe Birth Defects
Water is an essential component of our bodies. We need to drink enough of it each day to stay healthy, especially when pregnant or breastfeeding. But what can happen when the water you need is contaminated with chemicals that have been linked to birth defects?
Nitrates in the Water
Nitrates are naturally occurring chemicals that are formed when nitrogen combines with oxygen or ozone. When these chemicals are created naturally, they tend to be in very low concentrations that have little effect on humans.
However, at higher concentrations, these chemicals have been linked with birth defects. Because nitrates have no smell or taste, it can be challenging to know if you’ve been exposed until you experience health problems. A recent study of Danish children born between 1991, when the Danish government started tracking nitrate levels in water, and 2013 showed strong links between birth defects of the nervous system and the eyes. Additionally, a California study linked high nitrate levels with preterm births, which can lead to lengthy hospital stays and myriad health problems throughout the child’s life.
When pregnant women drink water that has nitrate concentrations above legal limits, their babies may suffer from spina bifida or other neural tube defects, small or missing eyes or other eye birth defects, and birth defects of the head, face, and neck. And often the most dangerous time to be exposed to nitrates is during the first three weeks of pregnancy, when many women don’t even know they are pregnant. Additionally, when babies drink formula mixed with water high in nitrates, they are at risk of the deadly blue baby syndrome, where their blood can’t effectively absorb and transport oxygen.
Sources of Nitrate Contamination
As mentioned, nitrates can occur naturally in low levels that are not cause for concern. However, industrial agriculture can lead to dangerous levels of nitrates in groundwater. When factory farms use high levels of commercial fertilizers or don’t properly dispose of animal waste, the runoff can increase the levels of nitrates in nearby groundwater to levels above 10 milligrams per liter, the EPA’s maximum contaminant level to prevent blue baby syndrome. All states have some areas with contaminated groundwater, and private wells in those areas can be at great risk.
This contamination can happen on family farms as well, making it important to ensure that farms of all sizes adhere to appropriate waste management and rely on fertilizers with fewer toxic chemicals.
Municipal water systems in the United States test for nitrates and report the levels, so you can check with your city or county to find out the levels of nitrates in the public water supply. If there is an increase above federally mandated levels for nitrates or other regulated contaminants, consumers who use that water supply will be notified.
However, many people receive water from wells, and nitrate levels in private wells are not tracked by any governmental agency. If you use well water, you should use a private testing firm to measure the levels of nitrate in your water each year. Each state maintains a list of certified laboratories that can perform these types of tests.
Lowering Nitrate Levels
Unlike some other water contaminants, nitrates can’t be removed by boiling or filtering water. In fact, experts recommend that you do not boil water with high levels of nitrates because it will increase the nitrate concentration because some of the water will evaporate. Instead, you will need to use a reverse osmosis, ion exchange, or electrodialysis filtering system, which can be costly to install and maintain. The source of the contamination should also be addressed.
All households, but especially those that include babies and woman of childbearing age, should either mitigate any nitrate contamination or make sure to use only safe bottled water for drinking and cooking.
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