What are nitrates and why should I be concerned?

Nitrate (NO3−) is formed when nitrogen from ammonia or other sources combines with oxygen in water. Nitrate is naturally found in plants and in vegetables at varying concentrations. It is often in groundwater depending on the amount of fertilizer and manure applied to crop fields. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most adults who are eating a balanced diet may consume 10-25 milligrams of nitrate-nitrogen per day in their food.

When nitrates get into our drinking water, they can pose a risk to our health. Nitrates can impact the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Drinking water with high levels of nitrates is unsafe for everyone, but especially for babies (less than 6 months old) and pregnant women. High levels of nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome” (aka. methemoglobinemia) in infants. Some studies suggest that high levels of nitrates may also cause birth defects, thyroid problems, and certain kinds of cancer. Additional exposure to nitrate from contaminated drinking water may pose a significant health risk.

Solutions / Recommendations

Nitrate contamination was brought up at every Water Quality Task Force hearing. There are too many people in Wisconsin who cannot drink their water because of high nitrate levels. Solutions need to address the source of the problems. Short-term fixes such as filters and bottled water will help people drink their water today, but they do not stop the pollution at the source.

A first step is to know if you are in a high risk area. Contact you local health department to ask about your drinking water. They can connect you to programs to test your drinking water. One example is Rock County’s Nitrate Risk Mapping Tool, where county residents can learn if they are in a nitrate risk area and they steps to take if they are. 

Wisconsin’s Green Fire has proposed several long-term recommendations in their publication, Nitrates in Wisconsin’s Water- Wisconsin Green fire’s Policy Analysis

More Information

Explore the links below to learn more about nitrates in Wisconsin’s waters.

Questions? Or, have a story to share on how nitrates have impacted you?
Contact us at [email protected]

(Sources: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Rock County Health Department, EPA, Wisconsin’s Green Fire)