Nitrates in Tap Water: What Parents Need to Know
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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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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