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Nitrates in Tap Water: What Parents Need to Know

Health + Wellness
Nitrates in Tap Water: What Parents Need to Know
sonsam / iStock / Getty Images

By Grace Francese

A new Environmental Working Group (EWG) study published in Environmental Research found that nitrate, one of the most common contaminants of drinking water, may cause up to 12,594 cases of cancer per year, but that's not its only danger: It can pose unique health risks to children.


The good news is that there are steps you can take to keep your family safe.

Why is nitrate dangerous?

Most of the nitrate that ends up in public water systems comes from agricultural runoff that contains nitrogen fertilizer and manure. Although everyone may be exposed to nitrate, it poses the greatest risk to infants and pregnant women.

The potential harm of nitrate may begin during pregnancy, and at levels far lower than the legal standard. EWG estimates that every year, it may cause up to 2,939 cases of very low birth weight, up to 1,725 cases of very preterm birth and up to 41 cases of neural tube defects.

Infants fed formula made with water contaminated by nitrate above the federal legal standard run the risk methemoglobinemia, also known as "blue baby syndrome" — a rare but serious condition that blocks the blood's ability to carry oxygen. The EPA's current limit for nitrate in drinking water — 10 parts per million, or ppm — was set to prevent blue baby syndrome. Current research suggests that the standard, set in 1962, is long past due for an update.

Research shows that even a level of nitrate less than one-tenth of the current legal limit may cause harm to a developing fetus, but earlier this year, EPA suspended its planned reevaluation of the nitrate standard.

Although nitrate can be removed with at-home water filtration technologies, options are limited and can be expensive. It's less costly to keep nitrate out of drinking water in the first place, with policies and community-based efforts to protect source water, such as installing nitrate-removal treatment at water treatment plants.

"Millions of Americans are being involuntarily exposed to nitrate, and they are also the ones paying the heavy costs of treating contaminated tap water," said Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., a toxicologist and author of EWG's new nitrate study. "But the federal government is not doing enough to protect Americans from tap water contamination."

What can you do?

EWG has tools you can use to protect your family from nitrate contamination to your drinking water.

First, use EWG's Tap Water Database to find out whether you may be exposed to nitrate. If you have your own well, a state-certified facility can test for nitrate and other contaminants. Your local county cooperative extension program may provide well testing, maybe even at reduced or even no cost. It is especially important to get your well water tested if you live in farm country, where nitrate pollution is often worse.

If your water contains nitrate levels close to the EPA limit of 10 ppm, switch immediately to a different source of drinking water and install a water filtration system designed to remove nitrate. Even if your nitrate level is lower, you may want to install a water filter. Just be aware that carbon filters won't suffice to reduce nitrate. The EPA recommends reverse osmosis or ion exchange systems. Consult EWG's Water Filter Guide for filters that can protect against ntirate and other contaminants.

If you have a formula-fed baby, instead of using unfiltered tap water to mix formula, follow EWG guidelines to find a water filter system that will remove nitrate. Or use water that's been filtered by distillation or reverse osmosis, as indicated on the label.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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