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Should You be Worried About Nitrates in Water?

Nitrates in water is gaining the attention of a lot of people since human activities have led to an increasing amount of contamination in wells and other water sources.

It’s important to pay attention to the contaminants present in our water supply, whether your source is well water, ground water, or city water systems.

Nitrate and nitrite are among the substances that might be present in your water systems, since these drinking water contaminants can lead to health problems, especially in infants.

Do you need to worry about your drinking water? Read on to learn more…

Nitrates from fertilizer

What are Nitrate and Nitrites?

Nitrate and nitrite are chemical compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen atoms.

Nitrate (NO3) is made up of 1 nitrogen atom and 3 oxygen atoms.

Nitrite (NO2) is made up of 1 nitrogen atom and 2 oxygen atoms.

Both compounds are stable, but they can be converted into other compounds in the body.

Nitrate can be converted into nitrite by the coliform bacteria in your mouth and body enzymes.

Our body is a natural source of nitrate and other sources include vegetables, processed food, and drinking water.

Nitrate vs. nitrite is a common question, but unfortunately, too much of either can be a problem according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

What are the Sources of Nitrate in Water?

There are many sources that can release nitrate and nitrite in the surface water, groundwater, well water, or tap water supplies, and most of them come from human activities.

nitrates from feedlots
  • Agricultural activities – Nitrogen fertilizers and manures used in agricultural areas to improve the soil are one of the major sources of nitrate pollution. Golf courses also use a large amount of fertilizer. In both cases, run-off will affect nearby wells with nitrates and possibly phosphates.
  • Wastewater treatment – This treatment aims to remove nitrate and nitrite concentrations by using anaerobic bacteria but can still create pollution.
  • Landfills – Garbage in landfills produce nitrogen compounds that will leach out into the environment.
  • Animal feedlots – The manure in large scale feedlots produces nitrate and nitrite. If animal manure encounters water like groundwater aquifers, it will increase nitrate and nitrite levels. Animal waste must be properly disposed to limit environmental exposure.
  • Septic tanks – If septic tanks leak human sewage into the soil, nitrate nitrogen is released in the surrounding areas including nearby wells or other water sources.
  • Sewage disposal – Sewage systems contain nitrogen chemicals which might contaminate your private well and other drinking water sources if not disposed properly.
  • Drainage – Drainage systems contain decaying materials that increase nitrate levels.
  • Decaying plant debris – Areas with large amounts of decaying plants have high nitrate concentrations.

How Nitrates Get into Ground and Well Water

Rain water and run-off that are contaminated with nitrate flow down into the groundwater and well water to contaminate the water source.

There are also areas with natural deposits of nitrate that mix with running water underground.

Once there is a high level of nitrate in drinking water, it can create health risks to all living organisms.

How Nitrates Affect Water

Although normal nitrates in water levels are safe, nitrates still affect the quality of water.

Water with high levels of nitrate can become toxic as drinking water and for other uses. Information like this can help prevent sickness and disease.

nitrate and nitrite in drinking water

How Much Nitrate is Safe in Drinking Water?

Ideal drinking water quality consists of less than 1.0 mg/L of nitrogen based on the information released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Water with up to 10 mg/L of nitrate levels are still safe for drinking.

If your water has high nitrate levels surpassing 10 mg/L, it is not considered safe to drink and is a higher risk for babies, according to the information given by various departments of health.

How to the Test for Nitrates in Water

City water or your local water system regularly conduct water tests to monitor the levels of contaminants in the water and prevent high levels of nitrate surpassing the 10 mg/L limit.

As for private wells and other water sources, you need to submit samples you collected from your well to licensed laboratories to test the for unsafe levels of microorganisms and contaminants like high nitrates.

Once you get the test results, ask a water expert to determine if the results from your well water meets the water quality limit of 10 mg/L imposed by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Well owners should regularly test to monitor the quality of well water.

Are Nitrates in Water Harmful?

Effects of Nitrates on the Human Body

Human health problems might occur if there is exposure of nitrate concentrations in the drinking water according to United States health departments and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Nitrates can be converted into nitrites and then further converted to either nitric oxide or nitrosamines that are dangerous to your health.

Nitric oxide is beneficial, but nitrosamines are harmful to your body and can lead to sickness.

How Nitrates Lead to Blue Baby Syndrome or Methemoglobinemia

How Nitrates Lead to Blue Baby Syndrome or Methemoglobinemia

There can be serious health effects in infants if there are high levels of nitrate intake from drinking water supplies, according to the National Library of Medicine.

High levels of nitrate contamination are the primary cause of methemoglobinemia or more commonly known as “blue baby syndrome” that endangers the health of children.

Nitrate is converted into nitrite mostly in the stomach of the infants which promotes the growth of nitrate-reducing bacteria. Since babies have less acidic stomach juices, they cannot fend off the bacterial growth.

As nitrite combines with the red blood cells, it reduces the capacity of the blood to distribute oxygen to all parts of the body, which leads to methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome in infants.

It is also not recommended to give babies and pregnant women food with high nitrate concentration to avoid birth defects like blue baby syndrome and other health concerns.


Just like humans, nitrate in drinking water is not harmful to animals. However, if animals drink water with high levels of nitrates, it will be converted into nitrites at high levels and can lead to various health issues and nitrite poisoning.

Nitrite poisoning can be chronic or acute, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual.

Chronic toxicity leads to weight loss, abortion, and reduced milk production.

Acute toxicity leads to the production of methemoglobin that will not transport oxygen in the body. Once this happens, the animal could suffocate and die.

Symptoms of Nitrite Poisoning

If you observe several of the following symptoms, your animals might be experiencing health problems due to nitrite poisoning.

  • bluish or chocolate brown mucous
  • difficulty breathing
  • rapid breathing
  • noisy breathing
  • rapid pulse of more than 150 beats per minute, high blood pressure, or heart rate
  • salivation, bloating, tremors, or staggering
  • dark or chocolate colored blood
  • weakness, coma, and death


Nitrates promote growth in plants which is why they are the main ingredients in fertilizers.

Information from marine studies and the EPA show that aquatic plants and algae grow well, but it can lead to oxygen depletion in the water and eventually, a health risk to marine animals.

While these compounds can benefit plants when used properly, their overuse leads to problems in other parts of the environment including drinking water wells.

How to Remove Nitrates from Water

nitrates in water

Heating or boiling water does not remove nitrates in water but increases the concentration of nitrates and other minerals.

Mechanical filters and chemical disinfection are not effective in removing nitrates from the water.

Fortunately, there are several treatment processes that can effectively remove nitrates from your water and make it safe to babies and your family.

Ion Exchange

Ion exchange uses solid polymeric ion-exchange resin to attract ions you want to remove from the water.

In this case, the nitrate and nitrite are attracted from the water then remain in the resin while allowing nitrate-free water to continue through your pipeline.

Whole house water treatment systems and specialized filters are very effective are removing nitrates and nitrites from contaminated well water.


Distillation is the process of boiling water and turning it into vapor. Collecting that vapor in another container and allowing it to cool, produces distilled water.

During the process, the contaminants (including nitrate compounds) are left in the original container.

Reverse Osmosis

A reverse osmosis system (RO) removes contaminants by pushing the water through a semipermeable membrane and pressure.

RO filters are one of the most efficient ways to remove nitrogen compounds, nitrite, and nitrate in drinking water.

Nitrates in Water Summary

Chemicals in water can be a serious issue and any nitrogen compound above 10 mg/L is concerning.

If your water comes from a well, you could be at higher risk. Untreated well water can be highly dangerous depending on the use of nitrogen in your area and proper well maintenance is important.

You can get more information from local water experts about pollution to private wells and municipal water supplies.

Only with a professional water test can you know the exact levels in your own water and whether you should consider water treatment options.

Protect your health by looking into the quality of your water now!