Nitrate Contamination of Groundwater Much Cause for Concern

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis have found troubling data indicating severe nitrate contamination of groundwater in farming communities in Central California.

Researchers have found that around 10% of the 2.6 million people residing in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin might be drinking nitrate contaminated water.  And the researchers warn that if nothing is done 80% of residents will face health and financial risks stemming from the contamination.

Nitrate contamination can cause a slew of health problems including birth defects, hair loss, skin rashes, stomach and gastrointestinal cancer, and thyroid cancer.  Nitrate contamination has also been linked to blue-baby syndrome (also referred to as methemoglobinemia), a blood disorder found in infants six months of age or younger.  Blue-baby syndrome prevents blood cells from absorbing oxygen and can be fatal if not treated.

Nitrates form when nitrogen from ammonia reacts with water.  Common sources of nitrates include the use and production of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels.  Not surprisingly, agriculture is the biggest contributor to the nitrate contamination problem.  For example, the U.C. Davis study found that 96% of nitrate contamination came from agriculture, whereas only 4% was found to come from food processing, landscaping, septic systems, and water treatment plants among other sources.

Angela Schroeter, agricultural regulatory program manager for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, warns that the problem is more severe than previously thought.  Nitrate contamination will not only affect people’s health, but will also exact a heavy financial toll on citizens.  Researchers predict that residents and utilities will pay $20 million to $36 million per year towards water treatment and alternative sources of water for the next 20 years and counting.

What is even more disturbing is that current nitrate contamination of groundwater most likely occurred decades ago, which signifies that even if contamination were to be reduced, groundwater would still remain polluted for years to come.  In addition, removal of nitrates from groundwater is no easy process and is also very expensive.  One solution, called “pump and fertilize” requires pulling nitrate-saturated water out of the ground and applying it to crops at a specific time to achieve complete nitrate uptake.  Other solutions include placing a fee on fertilizer sales and increasing “mill fees” on fertilizer production.  To learn more and to see how you can help, please visit

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