Happy Wednesday, amigos! It’s been a beautiful week so far here in Washington, D.C. The weather is warm, restaurants are opening their patios, everyone is out jogging around the national mall, and I’m planning on eating frozen yogurt for dinner tonight. I’d say that the warm weather is what makes this a great time to think about water, but really, I think about water almost every single day. I love water. I love to drink it, I love to swim in it, I sometimes love to pour it on my head after a really, really long run. I even think about water all day at work, every day. I think about water like it’s my job. Probably because it is my job, but the point is that water is pretty great.
Or at least, water is pretty great…until it’s not. As reported yesterday by the Washington Post, if you’re a resident of Salinas Valley and Fresno, Tulare, Kings or Kern county in California, water is probably not making you very happy right now. At least half the residents of these areas – 1.3 million people – have nitrate levels in their water that exceed the limit set by EPA. With continued population growth and current trends, this is expected rise to 80% by 2050.
Where are all these nitrates coming from? The #1 answer is agricultural runoff: While nitrates are a necessary nutrient, excessive fertilizers and livestock manure creates contaminated runoff that eventually ends up in surface waters and can leach into groundwater sources such as well and aquifers. Residents drinking out of private wells or untreated water are at a particularly high risk, although contamination is also found in areas with overtaxed water treatment facilities and frequent sewage overflow. The result? Somebody’s drinking water source + fertilizers + livestock manure = gross.
In addition to the fact that that’s gross, nitrate contamination has been linked to reproductive disorders and cancer, but is most well known as a main cause of “blue baby syndrome” – a phrase that refers to an often-fatal condition in newborns and infants in which the blood does not deliver sufficient oxygen to the body, resulting in tissue hypoxia, and if untreated, death. Although there are several causes of blue baby syndrome, some of which are congenital, one of them is acquired methemoglobinemia, and it’s totally preventable. This condition is caused by high levels of nitrates in drinking water as well as the presence of certain pesticides, including DDT and PCB’s. While we’re at it, I will mention that just the way it does in human children, the effect that high nitrate levels have on dissolved oxygen is fatal to many aquatic organisms as well and has profound impacts on ecosystems. But let’s take care of the humans first before we worry about the fish.
Sadly, California isn’t the only case where agricultural runoff has caused problems. High levels of nitrates in drinking water were also found in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio, according to the Environmental Working Group. And while EPA does regulate nitrate levels in drinking water, there are important caveats to this regulation. First, the maximum level currently set (10 ppm) does not account for prolonged exposure – for example, what happens if a woman is consuming low-levels of nitrate contamination across an entire nine month pregnancy. Nitrates build up in the system and the effects are compounded, so even if a single glass of water isn’t dangerous, the cumulative effects might be.
Second, EPA’s jurisdiction does not extend over private wells and groundwater sources, nor does it apply to contaminants that are sprayed or discharged onto fields. (The only reason this nitrate problem came to light is because of a study that was conducted by special order of the California state legislature.) Of course, whenever EPA tries to make a move towards tighter standards for more water sources, conservatives everywhere begin clutching their pearls and shaking their pitchforks, decrying the invasion of privacy and stating that “EPA is trying to regulate every last mud puddle.”
I guess they have a point– it’s a free country, and if you want to drink untreated water that was contaminated by chemicals and livestock manure (yes, I mean cow pies) then that’s your choice.
Stepping away from my normal snarkiness for a moment, this situation is actually pretty sad – many rural families are forced to assume the additional economic burden of purchasing bottled water in order to protect themselves during pregnancy and to protect young children from the health risks associated with drinking local water. And sadly, nitrate contamination and the problems caused by agricultural runoff are actually just the tip of the iceberg where water is concerned. As reported by The New York Times as part of their “Toxic Water” series in 2009:
“…Independent studies in such journals as Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology; Environmental Health Perspectives; American Journal of Public Health; and Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, as well as reports published by the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that millions of Americans become sick each year from drinking contaminated water, with maladies from upset stomachs to cancer and birth defects.”
The bottom line here is that while our nation has a lot of issues facing us today, I’m wondering if it’s time to stop arguing about problems we really can’t solve, and pay attention to those we can: how to fix our water infrastructure. The other option, of course, is to just stop drinking water.
You can read the Huffington Post summary of nitrate pollution in California here. (And stay tuned for future posts, where I will revisit the question of water, cost, and who pays for all of this!)