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Your Guide to Nitrates in Water


High nitrate levels in drinking water may impact health, especially in babies under six months. However, nitrate exposure is rarely a serious health concern for others — with potential exceptions for those with certain conditions and women who are or may become pregnant. 

Because nitrate occurs naturally in groundwater and has additional man-made sources, it’s possible to have this compound in your water supply. However,  inorganic nitrate has no color, odor or taste, so water testing is the only way to know for sure. 

To address nitrate levels in drinking water, you’ll need to choose a reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration system certified to handle the compound. Along the way, you’ll also enjoy the other benefits of RO filtration, including protection against a broad array of other potential contaminants in your water as well as better taste, smell and appearance.*

Here’s your guide to nitrate in the water supply and what you can do to improve your water quality.

How To Handle Nitrates in Water

If you suspect that you have high levels of nitrate in your drinking water, the first thing to do is have a water test.

A professional water test identifies the culprits behind taste, odor and appearance issues and even certain potential health and safety concerns. Better yet, these tests help identify water issues you might not be aware of, including nitrate contamination. To most accurately measure nitrate concentration, your water sample should be sent to a laboratory certified for this type of testing. You can also have lab tests for other potential sources of contamination, including lead, copper and bacteria.

In the meantime, don’t forget about free, in-home water tests and consultations, which take about 30 minutes and can catch issues like these:

  • Water hardness
  • Chlorine
  • Total dissolved solids (TDS)
  • Iron

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If your test results show any nitrate levels, your next step is to test for coliform bacteria — a potential indicator of other bacteria in your drinking water. Positive results could indicate a more serious issue, so be sure to work with a qualified water expert.

Your next step is to talk to your water expert about the right water quality solution for your home. Chances are, they’ll recommend an RO water filtration system — which, with the right certifications, can help address issues such as nitrate contamination. Note that not all RO systems have this certification, and that activated carbon filters – like those found in typical water filter pitchers – do not address nitrate in water. Culligan’s Aquasential® Reverse Osmosis System is certified for the reduction of nitrate in water, as well as 60 other contaminants and 15 emerging contaminants.

What else can an RO system address? Here are a few examples:

  • Lead
  • Arsenic
  • Mercury
  • TDS
  • Copper
  • Fluoride

Finally, have your RO water filtration system installed. Once everything is up and running, you’ll enjoy improved water quality no matter the source — and you might notice better tastes, too.

Does Boiling Water Remove Nitrate?

It’s important to note that boiling water doesn’t fix nitrate contamination; in fact, this can worsen your water quality problem. That’s because boiling can increase the amount of nitrate in your water. If you have high levels of nitrate or particularly susceptible family members, it’s often best to use another water source until you can get a certified treatment system or solution.

The Science of Nitrate Levels in Drinking Water

Want to know more about nitrate and how it ends up in your water? You’ve come to the right place:

What Is Nitrate?

Nitrate is a form of nitrogen. It’s a natural part of the environment — for example, it’s a component of many vegetables — and also has man-made forms such as those found in manure and fertilizer.

The former kind of nitrate is called “organic nitrate,” and it’s the product of human and animal waste decomposing. When this compound is in your water supply, it may cause a rotten egg smell or an unpleasant foam.

The latter kind of nitrate is “inorganic nitrate.” Generally found in fertilizers, this compound often has no color, taste or odor.

How Do Nitrates Get Into The Water Supply?

When rain or melted snow come into contact with nitrate, the water carries the compound throughout the environment. That means nitrate can easily end up in groundwater — and given that around 12.5 million Canadians and 145 million Americans rely on this groundwater for drinking, cleaning, bathing and more, it’s entirely possible for nitrate to be part of your everyday life.

Are There Safe Levels of Nitrate?

Although some levels of nitrates in water are normal and occur naturally, it becomes a problem when human activities cause normal levels to rise above acceptable standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality have set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrates in water: 10 parts per million, or 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Nitrate exposure below this level is not expected to cause significant health problems in most cases. Every public water supply in the U.S. and Canada must adhere to this standard. The EPA also provides data on states with a drinking water nitrate concentration higher than 5 mg/L.

Who Is Most Susceptible To Nitrate Exposure?

Infants are perhaps the most vulnerable when it comes to high nitrate levels. That’s because nitrate reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen — and while adult blood cells can recover quickly, the same isn’t true for babies. As such, nitrate levels over 10 mg/L can cause a shortage of oxygen in an infant’s body, leading to methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome.”

Women who are or may become pregnant should also be careful with nitrates in water. Pregnancy increases the body’s demand for oxygen, and too much nitrate can impact the blood’s ability to meet those demands.

Finally, there are a few health conditions that can make adults more susceptible to issues from nitrate contamination:

  • Low levels of stomach acid
  • Anemia
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Lung disease
  • Some genetic conditions

Nitrate Management in the Water Supply

It’s true that nitrates in water are often part of the natural environment. However, because multiple health organizations have set limits on this compound, every municipal water supply is regularly rested for nitrate. If elevated levels are found, affected communities are notified and steps are taken to identify the potential sources of contamination.

That’s not the case for private wells. If you have a well, you’re responsible for testing and managing your own water supply — and that’s a big deal when it comes to nitrate. Why? As it turns out, wells — especially shallow, rural wells — are most likely to be contaminated with nitrates. That’s part of the reason the EPA recommends private well water sources be tested once a year for nitrates (and TDS, total coliform bacteria, pH levels and more).

Test and Protect Your Drinking Water Supply

Even if you don’t currently have susceptible people in your household, it’s smart to get the facts about nitrate contamination and its potential impacts on health and water quality. That way, you’re always in charge of what you drink — and what you offer to friends, family and even pets.

A lab test is generally necessary to determine nitrogen levels. After that, water experts will likely recommend an RO water filtration system for your home — and these solutions address a whole lot more than just nitrogen, so you get even more benefits along the way.

Take the first step toward better water by scheduling your free, in-home water test and consultation today.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

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