Home > News Briefs > There’s something in the water…

There’s something in the water…

UC Davis lead investigators Thomas Harter and Jay R. Lund and their team find increasing nitrate pollution in California’s Drinking water.

By Alex Gulevich


Image from the Monterey Herald

A research report released by the University of California, Davis yesterday found one in ten Californians are at risk to nitrate contamination in their drinking water. Four counties in the Tulare Lake Basin and Monterey County in the Salinas Valley were found to be at risk or exceed the maximum content level set by the California Department of Public Health, affecting 2.6 million people in the region who depend on groundwater as their source for drinking water. Potable water is not to exceed nitrate levels past 45 parts per million (ppm) by California standards, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency advises nitrate levels not to exceed 10 ppm.

The four counties tested are among the top five agricultural producing counties in the nation, where 40% of California’s irrigated crops are grown and over 50% of California’s dairy herds are raised. The majority of nitrate accumulation comes from synthetic fertilizers and animal manure not removed by crop harvest or water run off. The fate of the unused nitrates amended to the soil have seeped into the local aquifers over the past decades and contaminated the primary source of drinking water in these regions. Continuing the current agricultural practices and methods will continue increase and spread of nitrate pollution.

High levels and consistent intake of nitrates adversely affects human health. The human body converts nitrate to nitrite and negatively alters the normal structure of hemoglobin, the protein in our blood we use to transport oxygen throughout our body. Nitrate levels at 50 ppm causes methemoglobinemia, commonly known as “baby blue syndrome”, and puts infants and pregnant women most at risk with the most severe cases causing brain damage due to the lack of oxygen transport. Other studies in rodents implicate nitrite intake increases the risk of tumor formation by reacting with amine compounds to form nitrosamines, a well-documented carcinogen. These studies however were not able to correlate a diet of nitrates and amines leading to increased tumor formation.

Water remediation is possible through proper management and application of fertilizers, however the cost is projected at $56 million annually for short- and long-term solutions combined, with an additional $17 to $34 million to provide safe drinking water in the areas studied. The success of remediation is dependent on water education initiatives, new policies and funding cleanup programs which will likely require a concerted statewide effort as many communities in the affected area are among the Californians with the least economic means and technical capacity. Discussions for public comment will be held on May 23rd by the state water board to be followed by recommendations to the state legislature.

Learn more about the UC Davis report at http://groundwaternitrate.ucdavis.edu.

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