How Do You Remove Nitrates from Water?
by Dr. Jonathan Doyle - Updated May 12, 2022
We need safe and clean water to stay healthy and fit. But there is a barrier to meeting this need, and this is the presence of contaminants in the water in our households. Whether it is drinking water or water used for other domestic and agricultural purposes, chances are contaminants like nitrate will be present.
Nitrate has no smell or taste - identifying it in drinking water is always tricky. Drinking water with high amounts of nitrate can cause detrimental health effects in both adults and children. For instance, it is a leading cause of methemoglobinemia in humans and may impair oxygen transport within the blood system.
Nitrates in Water
Nitrogen exists in two natural states - nitrite and nitrate. There are human-made and natural nitrate and nitrites. The nitrogen required in plants comes in both states, naturally in water, food, and soil. When present in natural amounts, nitrates may not cause problems. However, it becomes a source of health concern once it is present in large quantities in drinking water.
The breakdown of organic materials by microorganisms in the environment leads to nitrate production. These organic materials include sewage, animal manure, and decaying plants. Nitrates are present in green leafy and root vegetables. Nitrates are also common components of foods, including cured or smoked meat, poultry, and fish. It is also usually present in chemical fertilizers.
Nitrates may be present naturally in minimal amounts in drinking water, often below the 3 mg/L mark. Anything above this mark is considered high nitrate levels, which come with major adverse health effects. Situating private well water close to a septic system may increase the risk of nitrate contamination. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), public water systems are expected to have no more than 10 mg/L of nitrate. Anything above this is considered nitrate contamination and is harmful.
Sources of Nitrate
Seventy percent of the earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen. Although it exists in different forms, nitrogen may react with other elements in the atmosphere to become a compound. For example, nitrites and nitrates are formed from such reactions. Nitrates become nitrites once they find their way into the human body.
You can find nitrate at safe levels in carrots, spinach, and other food sources. This form of nitrogen is derived from plant decay and similar natural processes. Nitrate is also an important component in several fertilizers, including those used on crops, lawns, and yards. Sewage system discharge and animal wastes are also prominent nitrate sources.
The amount of nitrogen deposited into the land by human activities has doubled since the mid-1920s. This can be attributed to the increased production and use of fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizers. Another notable cause is the preference for nitrogen-fixing crops like soybeans over natural vegetation.
Nitrate is one of the common impurities in public drinking water. However, identifying its source is not as easy as it seems. For example, it may come from fertilized soil runoffs, industrial or municipal wastewater, septic systems, and animal waste. Other sources of nitrates in drinking water include landfills and drainages in urban areas and dead/decaying plants.
The Health Effects of Nitrates
In the United States, the maximum nitrate contamination level in water is 10 mg/L, which is almost the same as the WHO standards of 11.3 mg/L NO3-N or 50 mg/L NO3. The health effects of nitrate consumption in humans are based on the duration and level of exposure to nitrate sources. For instance, short-term exposure often causes severe illnesses and death. If the exposure persists for long, it may cause diuresis and spleen bleeding.
The human body can effectively convert nitrate to nitrite naturally. The converted nitrite is then absorbed into the bloodstream. Therefore, nitrate may cause a different form of anemia.
The conversion of nitrate to nitrite in the human body impairs the effective movement of oxygen to different tissues via the blood. This comes with quick health deterioration even within a short time, with symptoms like the blueness of the skin and shortness of breath.
How Does Nitrate Affect Livestock?
Animals’ health can also be adversely affected if contaminated by nitrite or nitrate. For example, infant monogastric animals and ruminant animals can naturally convert nitrate to nitrites through their digestive system. That puts them at the risk of nitrate poisoning. In the case of adult monogastric animals, there are no nitrate-converting bacteria in their digestive systems, which means they are immune to methemoglobinemia.
Livestock feed and drinking water are two sources of nitrates in animals. There may be high amounts of nitrates in crops harvested post weather stress. That is why it is advisable to assess the fodder’s nitrate concentration before serving them to your animals.
There are a few symptoms of nitrate poisoning in livestock. If you ever notice any, contact your vet immediately for adequate care. The vet will need to draw out blood for proper diagnosis while the animal is alive. The blood must be obtained within two hours of death for dead animals. The blood of affected animals is mostly chocolate brown. Prompt diagnosis can save affected animals from death, and recovery often takes a short time.
Effective Protection from Nitrate
You must protect your wellness and that of your family from the dangers of nitrate contamination. First, start with ensuring your household drinking water is free of nitrates. There are many ways to achieve this, but the most effective is to use a household water filtration system that can reduce nitrate in your source water. In addition to the nitrates, such systems can also remove other harmful contaminants in your drinking water.
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Plants require nitrates for proper growth and development. However, nitrates become a problem in water if present in excessive amounts in the soil. Experts recommend routine water checks to determine the amount of nitrate in water and its safety for you and your family. In cases where the nitrate levels in your household water are higher than the maximum save level, you should opt for a safer source of drinking water for your household.