Report Raises Health Concerns about Nitrate in Drinking Water

posted on Thursday, September 29, 2016 in Water and Land News


September 29, 2016

Katy Heggen
Communications & Outreach Director
515-244-1194 x210,

Report Raises Health Concerns About Nitrate in Drinking Water

DES MOINES - Today, the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) released a new report, “Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans,” an overview of research conducted in Iowa, the U.S. and abroad that indicates the health risks associated with nitrate in drinking water may go beyond blue-baby syndrome.

The white paper focuses on significant findings that multiple studies have associated with nitrate in drinking water, including birth defects, bladder cancer and thyroid cancer. Most of these associations with human health problems have been found when nitrate levels are higher than the drinking water standard (10 mg/L), though some research suggests that nitrate concentrations lower than the standard may be harmful.

“While more research is needed, the current findings offer compelling reasons to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution from nitrate flowing into our surface and ground water from farm fields, urban yards, livestock facilities, water treatment plants and other sources,” said IEC Agricultural Policy Specialist Ann Robinson, the lead author on the report.

Since the 1960s, elevated levels of nitrate in water used for baby formula have been known to pose the risk of methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, a serious, potentially fatal condition that decreases the blood’s ability to carry vital oxygen through the body. As IEC reports, there is a growing body of research that suggests nitrate pollution may pose additional risks to public health.

“Access to safe drinking water whether from Iowa’s public water supplies or private wells is an issue of health equity. This body of research helps to define what those relative risks are, so Iowans make informed decisions to address them,” said Jeaneane Moody, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, one of the health specialists who served as a reviewer during development of IEC’s report.

Elevated nitrate levels in Iowa’s drinking and recreational waters have been a concern since the state was identified in the 1990s as a top contributor of the nitrate and phosphorus pollution that fuels the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, the issue has received increased attention due to the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three drainage districts in northwest Iowa, an area identified as a hot spot for nitrate pollution in the state and the Nation.

The report emphasizes the importance of reducing nitrate pollution at the source in the landscape, and recommends a statewide watershed approach to bring urban and rural citizens together to solve pollution problems. It acknowledges the value of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a “toolbox” that offers sound, science-based solutions, and calls for a sustainable source of funding with clear timelines and accountability measures to support nutrient reduction efforts.

“We applaud those who are taking responsibility to help clean up our water, but more action is needed,” said Robinson. “Water is essential for life, and we have a shared responsibility to preserve our natural resources today and for future generations. We encourage all Iowans to join in and support efforts to benefit the health and well-being of our families, neighbors and those downstream.”


The Iowa Environmental Council is an alliance of diverse organizations and individuals working together to protect Iowa's natural environment. Founded in 1995, it is the largest and most comprehensive environmental coalition in the state. Through education, advocacy and coalition building, the Council raises awareness, generates action and creates large-scale change that makes Iowa a better place to live, work and explore.