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The Rest of Story on Nitrates

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In the last issue of Jefferson Policy Journal (May 14, 2015) I referenced a 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) paper titled Nitrate and Nitrite in Drinking Water.  The paper has interesting conclusions regarding nitrates, conclusions which disagree with EPA.

Let’s compare what WHO claims as fact, to what EPA and others say are facts about nitrates. You be the judge.

First EPA, in a document published in May, 2007, claims “Exposure to nitrates…at levels above health-based risk values…has been reported to have adverse health effects on infants and children.” It claims “The health effect of most concern to the U.S. EPA for children is the ‘blue baby syndrome’ seen most often in infants exposed to nitrate from drinking water used in formula.”

EPA explains in its chemical summary discussing toxicity and exposure for children’s health what blue baby syndrome is and how it is carried in the body. EPA declares that elevated levels in nitrate in drinking water may also cause “…intrauterine growth retardation, increased incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, cardiac defects, and increased risk of nervous system defects.” EPA, in its paper, claims there is conflicting evidence as to whether exposures to nitrate “…are associated with cancer in adults and children.”

In a recent case, CARE v. Cow Palace, the court accepted the fact that nitrates present an imminent and substantial danger because of nitrate contamination in groundwater. The opinion states that the plaintiffs described a number of health risks associated with nitrates in water “…including both chronic exposure and the exposure below the MCL (10 ppm) such as increased risk of various types of cancer, as well as hyperthyroidism and increased mortality from strokes and heart disease.” The court said, “Exposure primarily occurs from consuming drinking water, cooking with water, brushing teeth, and ingesting water while bathing, showering, or using pools.”

Apparently EPA, the court nor any of the lawyers have ever looked at the background document, WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality. (Remember the WHO document is only a worldwide guideline not an EPA regulation.)The WHO paper was published in December, 2011 and received comments from peer reviewers and the public.  The paper addresses the blue baby syndrome in infants under three months of age. The blue baby syndrome occurs when gastrointestinal disturbances play a crucial role. The conclusion is “…subsequent studies have identified methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome) only at nitrate concentrations in water that are higher than this, mostly in excess of 100 m/L, and often in the presence of gastrointestinal infections.”

Not much agreement here with EPA.  

As to the Cow Palace’s judge’s and EPA’s concerns, the WHO looks at whether nitrates cause cancer.   The WHO paper declares “No convincing evidence was found of an association between gastric cancer and the consumption of drinking-water in which nitrate concentrations of up to 45 mg/L (45 ppm).”

WHO further claims “No firm evidence [regarding cancer] was found at higher levels either,…” And finally the paper concludes “For other types of cancer, there are no adequate data with which to establish any association with nitrate or nitrite intake.”

Again, no agreement here with EPA.

WHO also examines other effects of high nitrate levels in drinking water. Congenital malformations are alleged to occur when drinking high nitrate levels but “…studies also failed to demonstrate a relationship between congenital malformations and nitrate intake.”

EPA declares 10 mg/L (10ppm) is needed to protect public health and has even considered lowering the standard to 5 mg/L or 5 ppm. WHO states clearly: “The guideline value for nitrate of 50 mg/L as nitrate is based on epidemiological evidence for the methaemolglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome) in infants, which results from short term exposure and is protective for bottle-fed infants…”  

The conclusions and facts from WHO do not match EPA’s conclusions.

Production agriculture, farmers, farm leaders and farm organizations must start educating themselves and, especially, the courts. There are two sides to the nitrate story. You and I are not scientists so we cannot properly evaluate the two versions of the facts set forth by WHO and EPA.  But, if we do not, we will see more defeats in the courts and more farmers pushed out of business because as Paul Harvey would say, “you need to hear the rest of the story.”

(This article first ran in Farm Futures on May 12, 2015)

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