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chemical element

What Are Nitrates?

Nitrates are ions created when nitrogen combines with oxygen. Nitrates can occur both naturally and synthetically. The nitrate ion is composed of one nitrogen atom and three atoms of oxygen (NO3).

Nitrate is primarily found in inorganic fertilizers used by farmers across the country. Nitrates are also used as oxidizing agents in the production of explosives used for construction and mining. Potassium nitrate is instrumental in making glass, and sodium nitrate is used in preservation, especially in that of cured meats. Nitrates keep deli meats and products like hot dogs colorful for aesthetic appeal, and help prevent certain types of bacteria list listeria from growing on meats.

Nitrates naturally occur in plant life. Nitrate is a key nutrient that plants need to grow, which is why it is a key component of many fertilizers. Nitrates are released in large volumes as part of smoke, industrial exhaust, and automotive emissions, and are part of the reason why inhaling these fumes is hazardous to one’s health.

How Do Nitrates Get Into Water?

Nitrates naturally occur in surface water and groundwater. Nitrogen is an essential component of protein and is present in most organic matter. However, nitrates can prove dangerous in high concentrations.

Nitrates are used primarily in fertilizers, and are more likely to be found in water supplies near areas of concentrated agricultural activity. If you live near a farm there is a much greater chance that your drinking water could contain high levels of nitrates.

Subpar wastewater treatment is also a major source of nitrates. The oxidation of nitrogenous waste found in and around septic tanks can lead to groundwater containing extremely high concentrations of nitrates and nitrites. Nitrate is highly leachable and will move with water within soil across great distances.

High Nitrates in Water

Poorly constructed wells are especially susceptible to becoming contaminated with unacceptable levels of nitrates. In general, wells in rural areas are more likely to be located close to farms, food processing plants, and other centers that create a great amount of nitrate waste or runoff are at risk for being contaminated.

The risk factor for finding nitrates in your well increases if you have a shallow well or if you are in a flood zone. Wells are very vulnerable to nitrate contamination after flooding, especially if the well has been submerged by floodwater for prolonged periods of time.

Of course, the greatest source of high nitrates in your water is agricultural runoff due to the use of nitrate fertilizers. That said, much of the blame is unfairly placed on farmers and their use of fertilizers for the resulting nitrate dispersal after a crop is harvested.

The problem occurs because, often, fields are seasonally empty. When a summer crop like corn or soy is being grown the plants naturally soak up all of the nitrates from the fertilizers - very little remains to continue on into the soil.

However, when fields are inactive during certain months of the year plant roots and microbes release built up nitrate deposits into the soil because there are no plants to absorb it. Rain or melting snow can speed up this process, carrying the nitrates from the fields to major sources for water supplies like rivers and streams.

The maximum contaminant level for nitrates as set by the Environmental Protection Agency is 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), or parts per million. In industrial areas, rainwater is sometimes measured to contain about 5 mg/L of nitrates. The nitrate level in surface level around the United States can vary between 0 and 18 mg/L, but can quickly soar in areas where agricultural runoff is carrying nitrates through the soil.

Other Sources of Nitrates

In addition to your drinking water you may also be consuming nitrate based on your diet. According to Cornell University’s Pesticide Safety Education Program about 80 to 90% of the nitrate you consume comes from vegetables. However, hardly any of this nitrate is broken down into nitrite.

Nitrates are dangerous because they can transform into nitrites (which contain one fewer oxygen atom than nitrates). When nitrates are stable they pose less risk to human health. Processed meat products like bacon, hot dogs, and store-bought ham account for about 10% of the nitrates you will consume, but constitute 60 to 90% of the nitrites you’re ingesting because of the unstable nature of the nitrate used.

As such, in addition to checking your water for high levels of nitrates you should also be wary of your diet and adjust it accordingly to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful nitrates.

Health Effects of Nitrates in Drinking Water

Nitrates have especially deadly health effects on pregnant women and newborn infants. To understand the specific problems young infants face when consuming nitrates, let’s cover some basic science:

In your digestive system nitrate will transform into nitrite. Nitrite will oxidize hemoglobin to form methemoglobin, which cannot transport oxygen in the same way that hemoglobin can. When methemoglobin reaches a certain concentration in your blood it creates a condition known as methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome.”

Newborns don’t have the amount of enzymes that adults do in order to convert the methemoglobin back to hemoglobin. Pregnant women and sufferers from digestive issues that have reduced acidity in their gut are also susceptible to the potentially fatal condition.

In its early stages it can be difficult to diagnose methemoglobinemia. Initial symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea. As the concentration of methemoglobin increases infants will start to show clear signs of cyanosis: the skin, lips, and nails will start to turn a blueish-grey color. If left untreated “blue baby syndrome” will cause infants to have trouble breathing before causing brain damage. At methemoglobin concentrations above 50% death can occur.

The best way to prevent this condition is to limit one’s consumption of nitrates, and for pregnant women and children to immediately stop drinking their tap water if high levels of nitrates are detected.

How to Test Your Water for Nitrates

If you suspect nitrates may be present in your water supply the only method of verifying this is a water test. Nitrates are odorless, colorless, and tasteless: you will not notice the presence of nitrates in your water simply by consuming it.

If you get your drinking water from a private well you must be proactive and test the water yourself, as the quality of well water is not regulated by the EPA. Domestic wells near sewage disposal areas or livestock facilities should be tested once a year at minimum to monitor the concentration of nitrates.

If you are concerned about the possibility of nitrates in your drinking water there are many options for testing. You can contact your city or county health department to request a free test be conducted of your well water. If these services are not available in your area you should not worry: Pelican Water carries various types of testing kits based on your budget and needs.

In order to check for nitrates we recommend the WaterCheck 32 Test. This is the most affordable water test that will measure the amount of nitrates and nitrites (as nitrogen) in your drinking water.

Order a test and consider buying a point-of-use filter if you are concerned about the possibility of nitrate contamination. Remember, boiling or heating your drinking water will not remove nitrates if they are present.

Once your water test arrives, follow these instructions:

  1. Carefully read the packaging to guarantee a valid sample.
  2. Follow the instructions provided to gather a water sample for testing.
  3. Using FedEx or UPS Overnight Saver, return your kit with the sample to the testing laboratory location indicated in the instructions. Note: return shipping is not included.
  4. The lab will process the results of your water test within 7 to 10 days of receiving your kit.
  5. Read your results once they have been mailed back to you.

After reading your water quality analysis report it’s best to contact the lab that conducted the testing if you have any questions. If you are still having trouble determining whether there is a dangerous level of nitrates in your drinking water contact Pelican Water directly.

Test your water for nitrates today - buy a water test kit from Pelican Water.

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How to Reduce Nitrates in Drinking Water

As we stated briefly above, nitrates cannot be removed from your water by at-home methods like boiling or heating your water. In order to reduce the nitrate content in your water to a safe level you should either eradicate the source of the nitrates (such as a leaking septic tank) or install a proper water filtration system if the source of the nitrates cannot be identified or removed.

Many types of water filtration will significantly reduce the amount of nitrates in your drinking water. In the following section we will indicate the specific level of nitrates that are filtered with each of our major types of water filters so you can make the best decision for your home.

Do Water Softeners Remove Nitrates?

Traditional water softeners like our Salt-Free Water Softener do not remove nitrates from the water. Salt-based water softeners are intended to treat “hard” water by exchanging the ions of minerals like magnesium and calcium for ions of sodium and other elements. Our salt-free water softeners forego the process of ion exchange completely and simply neutralize ions of common minerals to prevent scale buildup and other undesired effects.

Some types of products, called ion exchange units, can be installed to remove nitrates. These products function similarly to salt-based water softeners, but the resin inside swaps nitrate and sulfate ions for chloride ions. However, this is a very specific process. Investing in a water filtration system can help you reduce nitrates and improve the overall quality of your tap water.


Best Water Filters for Nitrates

After testing your water for nitrates you may find that the concentration indicated on your water quality analysis report exceeds the maximum contaminant level of 10 mg/L. In this situation, choose one of these filtration systems to protect your loved ones from “blue baby syndrome”:

Nitrate Reduction Water Filter - This unique water filter is specifically designed to combat high nitrate levels. Through the process of ion exchange unwanted nitrates are swapped for sodium chloride or potassium chloride depending on your preferences. The nitrate reduction water filter has an easy-to-program electronic head and includes a limited lifetime warranty on the tank and parts. Rest easy knowing the nitrates in your drinking water have been effectively reduced.

Check your water today for high levels of nitrates, especially if you live in rural area near farmland or use a private well. If you have any questions about our products or about protecting your family from the harmful effects of nitrates contact a Pelican Water specialist today.

Disclaimer: The information on this website has not been reviewed by the FDA. Products offered for sale herein are not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease or health condition. No medical claims are being made or implied. Contaminants mentioned are not necessarily in your water.