A recent report by the Iowa Environmental Council discusses the effects on humans who ingest nitrates through drinking water and this report should be standard reading in any college course. It may stimulate intellectual curiosity of some students to focus on science and how to ameliorate the challenge to our drinking water supply.

This is what the environmental lawsuit filed by Polk County is all about. And while no one likes to see lawsuits being filed it had to be filed in order to awaken the farmers along the waterways where the Des Moines area gets its drinking water.

Nitrate can come from farming operations, fertilizers rotting plants, human waste and plant life. Nitrates are added to some foods as a preservative. [Bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs are examples]

“Elevated nitrate levels in Iowa’s water have been a source of concern in recent decades since the state was identified as a top contributor of the nitrate and phosphorus pollution fueling the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, the challenges presented by high levels of nitrate in drinking water sources have received increased attention due to the Des Moines Water Works’ suit against three drainage districts in northwest Iowa, an area identified as a hot spot for nitrate pollution in the state and the Nation.”

For younger lawyers wondering which area of the law has growth to it, this, in my opinion is one area. If I were just starting my law career environmental law would be either the main or a sub-focus of my practice.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of nitrate-nitrogen (nitrate-N) was established in 1962 to prevent methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, a life-threatening condition that decreases the blood’s ability to carry vital oxygen through the body. Blue-baby syndrome is rare — especially since establishment of the EPA health standard that regulates public water supplies. As such, some are calling upon the agency to consider raising the allowable nitrate level, claiming that the drinking water standard is unnecessarily stringent.” Iowa Iowa Environmental Council, September 2016

When humans ingest nitrates the body turns it into nitrites which are considered unsafe are lower levels than nitrates. Private wells supplying drinking water to rural Iowans are a source of great concern to rural Iowans. A State-Wide Rural Well-water Survey conducted in 2006 to 2008 found that 12 percent of the private water samples had higher nitrate content than the allowable standard. This should be concerning to all Iowans.

“Iowans are particularly vulnerable to the potential health impacts from nitrate pollution because concentrations of nitrate in Iowa’s streams and groundwater have been found to rank among the highest in the U.S., even higher than elsewhere in the Corn Belt and Northern Great Plains. This presents a significant challenge for public drinking water suppliers that are legally required to provide water with nitrate-N concentrations at or below 10 mg/L.”

Here is the link to the study from the Business Record.

"Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans" reviews research conducted in Iowa and elsewhere.

There are several characteristics that can help to predict which wells might be contaminated. They include well depth, slope length near the well, year the water sample was taken, and distance to the nearest animal feeding operation.

Here is a quote: “A recent study modeling groundwater nitrate concentrations in private wells in Iowa found that, out of 179 variables studied, well depth, slope length near the well, year the water sample was taken, and distance to the nearest animal feeding operation, were the most predictive of high nitrate levels.”

For more information about private drinking well water see this website.

“Not all Iowans use public water supplies or have that option, especially those who live in rural areas. Many residents rely on private wells that are unregulated and often untested. Therefore, people who use private wells for their water supply may be at a greater risk of ingesting elevated concentrations of nitrate or other regulated pollutants. Iowa county-level data on nitrate and other pollutants measured in private well tests can be found at the Iowa Department of Public Health website, at https://pht.idph.state.ia.us/Environment/ PrivateWellWater/Pages/default.aspx.”

Steve Lombardi
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