Last summer, areas in the Midwest, including Iowa and Minnesota, experienced drought conditions. Now, with the return of rainfall, nitrates are entering the water system through run-off into surface water. Nitrates are difficult to filter out of water, and if not caught, they can cause serious health problems.

What are nitrates?

Epa-pollution-sourcesNitrates occur naturally through a combination of nitrogen and oxygen. In low levels, they are completely harmless. Water sources can often have trace amounts of nitrates. Excessive amounts can occur through pesticide or fertilizer use, a leaking septic system, or sewage run-off.

In times of higher than usual rainfall, water run-off can carry nitrates into the water system. Private wells in agricultural areas are particularly susceptible to becoming contaminated with nitrates. A recent example, can be found in Rock County, Wisconsin. This year, nearly 50% of wells tested throughout the county had unsafe levels of nitrates. Some cities even had wells with 80% greater than the allowed amount.

Why are nitrates dangerous?Nitrates in Rock County WI

High levels of nitrates ingested through drinking water or water used in cooking can inhibit the flow of oxygen in the blood stream causing shortness of breath and possible death. Both the EPA and the CDC warn that babies and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of high nitrates.   These high levels can also cause “blue baby syndrome.”

Other recent studies, discussed in this article from the Miami Herald, have come out showing that nitrates in tap water have been linked with birth defects including spina bifida and missing limbs.

How do I know if nitrates are in my water?

 Recently, the results for the government’s American Housing Survey came out. Along with measurements of number of occupants in a home and how many vehicles most families own, this survey also found that nearly 1 in 12 homes have unsafe drinking water. The contaminants listed was not specific, but you may be in one of these homes. Nitrates make some of these homes unsafe.

The only way to know if you have nitrates in your water is to test your water. Because of the rising levels of nitrates in certain areas, some local health departments offer well well water testing kits for a reduced price. Here are some locations that offer or have offered free nitrate testing:

New Mexico

Minnesota (also here)


If your area does not offer this service, Fresh Water Systems offers several options for testing your water, either from a well or from the tap, at home or sending it to a lab.

How can nitrates be removed from tap water?

 Once the level of nitrates has been confirmed, there are a few options for reducing the contaminant level. The CDC and the Water Quality Association both recommend a final barrier treatment. (A final barrier treatment is a final filtration system at the point of use. In other words, just before the tap water will be consumed.) Consumers have three options for this final barrier treatment: water distillersreverse osmosis systems, and ion exchange media. Each of these options will provide a filtration system that will lesson the amount of nitrates in tap water, making it clean and safe.

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