Watering Idaho: Nitrate Health Risks For Children In Rural Idaho

Sep 21, 2016

As KBSX reported Wednesday, the biggest health risk associated with high levels of nitrates in drinking water is a condition called methemoglobinemia, which can make infants six months and younger sick. Babies who drink formula using nitrate-contaminated water are at risk of developing the condition.

Methemoglobinemia -- which is also referred to as blue baby syndrome -- slows down the oxygen-carrying capacity in infants' blood, causing them to turn a light blue color. Digestive and respiratory complications are possible, and if the disease is left untreated, brain damage or death can occur.

So, is blue baby syndrome an issue in Idaho? 

The simple answer to that is: "Not that we know of." That's because methemoglobinemia is not a reportable disease in the state, so even if infants were getting sick, there's no way of tracking that information. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare updates the list of reportable diseases as recommendations come in. Once a disease is on the list, hospitals are required to let local health districts know of its existence. That information then gets passed to the state level, where -- depending on the disease -- officials can issue PSAs or media alerts.

Department spokesperson Tom Shanahan says that anyone can make the case for new additions to the list, which then need to be approved by the legislature. He says as far as he knows, no one has suggested making blue baby syndrome a reportable disease.

What Can You Do To Protect Your Child From Blue Baby Syndrome?

For people who drink from a private well the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has identified is within a nitrate priority area, getting your well tested for nitrates is the first step. The DEQ has home test strips that can give you an idea of your water's quality. If the test strip shows a high level of nitrates, the DEQ recommends you send a sample of the water to a state-certified laboratory. Since nitrate contamination can signal the presence of other issues like bacteria and pesticides, testing for one could help identify others.

If it turns out your water is above the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum contaminant level (above 10 mg/L), stop using your water for cooking and drinking. Unlike other contaminants that can be boiled out of water, nitrate becomes more concentrated if boiled. Experts recommend finding another water source -- like tested bottled water -- or buying a reverse osmosis filter.

Nitrates come from a number of sources, but the three most common sources are fertilizer, animal waste  and human waste. Although it's difficult to identify the exact source in a contaminated well, there are some things well-users can do. Experts recommend maintaining a secure well wall that is upstream from septic tanks, and not over-applying fertilizer on grass or crops.  

For more about nitrates in groundwater, listen to this story from Wednesday.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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