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Nitrate Levels in the Water Are High, Should You Be Concerned?

Jun 30, 2016

I just heard that Nitrate levels in the water are high, should I be concerned?

Well, for most of us the answer is no. The concern is mainly for two special groups – 1) very young children less than 6 months of age, especially if the water is used to mix infant formula and 2) pregnant women in their last trimester (over 30 weeks).

Why isn’t it a problem for most of us? There are several reasons. The body is quite used to nitrates. Nitrates occur naturally in plants and are found in many foods as a preservative. For example you ingest more nitrates from one hot dog or a slice of pepperoni pizza than you would from most water levels. For children (older than 6 months), and adults, this small amount of nitrate is cleared from the body (in the urine) within hours of drinking it, with no noticeable effect. The level in the water is still very dilute.

Why is there a concern for infants younger than 6 months and pregnant women in their third trimester? The young infants are different for a couple of reasons:

  • They may drink large amounts of the water; especially if the water is used to mix their formula (then it might be their only source of food and drink).
  • Some of the systems in their body are not fully mature yet. Nitrates can be converted to something sounding very similar: nitrites. The nitrites can affect the way the blood cells carry oxygen. It may cause the infant to look pale or blueish, or be fussy or lethargic. In children older than 6 months, their system has matured and we don’t see this risk.

The risk for pregnant women is in the third trimester and the concern is for the fetus (not the mother). Nitrates can be converted by the mother to nitrites and these get passed onto the fetus and may affect the way the blood cells carry oxygen. So if you are in these two special groups, it is recommended to use bottled water during this period. For the rest of us, it should be unnoticeable.

Nitrates are not absorbed through the skin, so you can bathe or shower in the water. Boiling water does not help; in fact it would increase the concentration. And, most home water filters do not remove nitrates. Thankfully, for most of us this is not a concern.

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Henry Spiller
Henry Spiller
Central Ohio Poison Center

Henry Spiller is the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. He has spent more than 30 years in toxicology, with more than 300 publications in the field.

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