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Nitrate Facts for Farmers to Know

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(Editor’s note: This battle in Iowa could come to Virginia which is why we are publishing it in this issue of the Jefferson Policy Journal.)

Farmers, start arming your selves with the facts regarding nitrates. Right now agriculture is losing the battle on the issue of the impact of nitrates and their impact on the public.

For example, on May 1 the Des Moines Water Work (DMWW) advised Iowa citizens that it is “…tapping reserve storage wells to lower nitrate levels in the water it supplies to central Iowa customers.” DMWW said it had readings of 14-16.25 parts per liter which translates to 14-16.25 parts per million (ppm) of nitrates in the water. Scary stuff!

A place to start in educating oneself is a paper entitled Nutrients in Iowa’s Waters prepared by a former 30-year career retired environmental engineer at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He provides facts for Iowa farmers which are missing from the news media. The paper notes nitrates are found in vegetables, fruits, grains and cured meat.

DMWW is deeply concerned about 10 ppm daily intake, the EPA standard. The paper cites to a National Research Council 1995 report that gives a typical daily nitrate intake by person in the U.S. A person drinking low nitrate water of 5 ppm would intake approximately 146 milligrams per day on a non-vegetarian diet and surprisingly because of high nitrates in vegetables and fruits, the average vegetarian diet would be 268 milligrams per day. Another small fact ignored by the news media is that there are natural formations of nitrates within the human body. The paper notes, “The 62 mg/day of endogenous (natural formation) nitrate is not surprising when you consider the roughly 15,000,000 milligrams of nitrogen in the air a person breathes daily.”

Much is made in the DMWW complaint about high levels of nitrate in water causing the “Blue Baby Syndrome” and other health defects.

The author writes “The National Research Council 1995 report stated that there had never been a death from blue baby syndrome in the United States attributed to drinking water with less than 50mg/l (50ppm) of nitrate…the report also states that blue baby syndrome can even result from endogenous synthesis (natural formation) in the body of nitrate, absent elevated nitrate in food or water.”

The NRC also claims, according to the author, “Most cases of blue baby syndrome are attributed to infant formula mixed with nitrate-containing well water, food with high-nitrate content fed to infants, or infants who have diarrhea.” So it would appear that the blue baby syndrome can also be attributed to nitrate in vegetables and the nitrite which is naturally formed in the body at higher levels because of infection.  

Another fact that should interest Iowa farmers and farm organizations: In a 2011 World Health Organization document Nitrate and Nitrite in Drinking Water a guideline of 50 ppm for nitrate is recommended and it goes on to say that water containing up to 100 mg/l or 100 ppm may be used for bottle-fed infants. (And Des Moines and EPA want a level of 10 ppm to protect infants?)The paper even takes on the allegation that there may be a connection between nitrate and cancer. Again, quoting the NRC 1995 report, “…there is no evidence that nitrate itself is a carcinogen.”

EPA, on the other hand, says in its summary of Nitrates and Nitrites published in 2007,that “Exposure to higher levels of nitrates or nitrites have been associated with an increased incidence of cancer in adults, and possible increased incidents of brain tumors, leukemia, and nose and throat tumors in children in some studies…”. EPA does say it has concluded “…there was conflicting evidence in the literature as to whether exposures to nitrates or nitrites are associated with cancer in adults and in children.” EPA cites itself for this conflicting evidence.

The author has a section on Iowa citizens’ belief that their drinking water problems are “…predominately caused by excessive erosion and over-application of fertilizer and manure both the fault of farmers.” This perception, he says, is “largely inaccurate”. The Des Moines news stories would have you believe nitrates are a huge problem for Iowa farmers. The paper concludes in part “Nitrate is not a widespread or overall worsening problem in Iowa’s drinking water.”    

The paper does allege that discharge from agricultural drainage tiles is a primary source of nitrates in surface waters. The author poses an interesting question in suggesting it is silly to protect every drop of water at great cost. The author says why not just take actions which will keep infants from being fed high-nitrate water. He notes however “Our environmental laws do not allow for such a common-sense approach ….”  The former DNR employee finally brings some facts to the table. Others in Iowa agriculture might want to get these nitrate facts to the citizens of Iowa. And soon!

(This article first ran in Farm Futures on May 4, 2015)

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