IEC Publishes New Report on Health Risks of Nitrate in Drinking Water

posted on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 in Water and Land News

DES MOINES, IA – Today, the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) published a new report “Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans,” outlining the risks of nitrate in drinking water to Iowans of all ages.  

The report, an update to a 2016 IEC publication of the same name, examines the links between nitrate in drinking water and public health risks. Peer-reviewed scientific research demonstrates links between nitrate in drinking water and increased risk of birth defects, colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, and other types of cancer. Research published over the past eight years provides even more compelling evidence that long-term exposure to nitrate at levels well below the current drinking water standard of 10 mg/L can lead to higher risk of these adverse health outcomes.

Woman Drinking

“For too long, it’s been commonly accepted that nitrate in drinking water isn’t a serious concern for anyone older than six months,” said Alicia Vasto, Water Program Director for IEC. “The recent research included in our report paints a much different picture.” 

The federal drinking water standard for nitrate was set in 1962 to protect against the risk of methemoglobinemia, also known as blue-baby syndrome, a serious and potentially fatal condition that decreases the blood’s ability to carry vital oxygen through the body. As IEC’s report lays out, a growing body of research suggests that nitrate pollution poses risks to the public at any age. 

“The evidence in this report is especially important now as EPA is restarting a human health assessment on the impacts of nitrate,” said IEC staff attorney Michael Schmidt. “The EPA should consider reducing the drinking water standard for nitrate to 5 or even 3 mg/L to protect human health.” 

While public water systems are required to meet the federal drinking water standards, private wells are not. Private well owners are responsible for testing and treating their own wells to ensure the water is safe to drink.  

“In a recent analysis of private well testing data in Iowa, we found that the vast majority of private wells in Iowa are not tested regularly for nitrate, despite high levels of contamination in the wells that were tested,” said Anne Schechinger, Midwest Director for the Environmental Working Group and a reviewer of the new report. “Rural Iowans on private wells may be at greater risk of drinking water with elevated levels of nitrate.” 

Water Tower

In addition to providing summaries of the scientific findings, IEC’s report outlines recommendations for policy solutions to reduce the risk of nitrate health impacts for Iowans. As elected officials and government agencies consider how to protect public health, they must consider regulatory solutions.  

“We cannot wait for voluntary approaches to reduce nitrate pollution to protect public health 30, 50, or 100 years from now,” said Vasto. “We’re seeing the impacts to public health now. We need solutions now.” 

Read the executive summary and full report.