Nitrate Contamination in Drinking Water

Chemicals in the Water

Nitrate Contamination in Drinking Water

October 14, 2016

According to the Water Research Center, nitrogen is essential for all living things as it is a component of protein. Nitrogen exists in nature and can change its form depending on the environment and other chemicals it bonds with. For example,  nitrogen nutrients are commonly used for lawn and garden care as well as crop production. In soil bacteria convert various forms of nitrogen to nitrate, a nitrogen/oxygen ion (NO3-). Nitrogen occurs naturally in the soil in organic forms from decaying plant and animal residues.  This is important to plant life because the majority of the nitrogen used by plants is absorbed in the nitrate form. However, nitrate is highly leach-able and readily moves with water through soil. If there is excessive rainfall or over-irrigation, nitrate will leach below the plant’s root zone and may eventually reach groundwater.


When nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N) is found in groundwater, research shows that leaching often occurs in places where activities near the wells have contaminated the water. Places where sewage is disposed of and at livestock facilities are common. Other affected places are  fertilized croplands, parks, golf courses, lawns, and gardens.

Nitrate-nitrogen occurs naturally in groundwater, usually at concentrations far below a level of concern for drinking water safety. However, excessive concentrations of nitrate-nitrogen or nitrite-nitrogen in drinking water can be hazardous to health. Those who are most susceptible to nitrate or nitrite contamination are pregnant women, infants, nursing mothers, and seniors.

Summer of 2016 news highlighted Columbus as having high nitrate levels in drinking water. The Columbus Division of Water announced  that hard rains had driven fertilizer and other contaminants into the Scioto River, raising nitrate levels in the drinking-water supply at the Dublin Road Water Plant beyond accepted environmental standards.

The Columbus Dispatch shared with the public that an issue advisory was given particularly to women over 30 weeks pregnant and infants younger than 6 months  to not drink tap water or consume it with infant formula. “High nitrate levels can be deadly for babies, causing symptoms including shortness of breath and blue coloring of the skin.”

Everyone was also told not to boil the water because doing so would only concentrate the nitrates. People are told that the city’s plan for fixing future nitrate problems is to spend $35 million on an ion-exchange facility that will function similar to water softeners by removing nitrates from millions of gallons of water a day. Some question why officials would choose a costly solution at the end of the pipeline rather than address the issue where it begins — with fertilizer runoff and other pollution far north of the city. Read more…

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