Educate yourself so you’re not caught off guard with common consumer questions.
By Greg Gruett
Water system professionals are poised to be the local experts for taking precautions to prevent nitrate contamination.
Residential water quality continues to make headlines and is top of mind for many homeowners. While we’re three years removed from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, overall consumer awareness of household water contaminants remains high, and people have questions they want answered.
For homeowners with private wells, a notable water quality issue is the presence of nitrates, especially in the Midwest. Water well contractors and pump professionals are poised to be the trusted local experts for taking precautions to prevent nitrate contamination, testing well water quality, and providing people with helpful information.
In most cases, nitrates in drinking water do not seem to present major health risks. As you’re likely aware, the biggest concern involves infants. Babies consume large amounts of water relative to their body weight and may develop methemoglobinemia, which can be fatal. It’s also known as “blue baby syndrome” because it restricts the ability for blood to transport oxygen, causing skin discoloration.
As we age, most adults and older children develop digestive systems that can process nitrates, which are found naturally in the vegetables we eat at higher levels than drinking water.
Proper testing is a way water system professionals can contribute to the conversation about nitrates. Photos courtesy Water-Right Inc.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, babies are no longer at a higher risk of the effects of nitrates by the age of 6 months. Still, there is also preliminary research indicating a possible link to long-term nitrate exposure and an increased risk of some types of cancer. That’s one more reason why you may encounter homeowners with concerns about nitrates.
Here are common consumer questions about nitrates and advice on discussions you can have with your residential customers.
What are nitrates?
This may be the first thing you’ll need to explain. The average person may need to know that nitrates are important nutrients for plants. They may also associate nitrates with their use as a food additive in processed meat.
Instead of causing unnecessary alarm and fear, homeowners should realize we consume nitrates in food and water all the time, but higher than normal levels in their water should be addressed.
High levels of nitrate may also be a sign other contaminants are entering the water supply, including pesticides and herbicides from farm fields or pharmaceuticals from septic system wastewater.
Because manure and septic systems can be a cause, nitrates are sometimes associated with the presence of fecal matter and harmful bacteria. Michael Hanten, however, manager of the state-certified Clean Water Testing laboratory in Appleton, Wisconsin, says that’s not completely accurate.
“I don’t like to make that direct correlation simply because the way bacteria and nitrates end up in drinking water aren’t necessarily the same,” he says.
Homeowners should know the land on which their property sits plays a big role in what contaminants make it into the groundwater supply.
Why does the soil matter?
Soil is nature’s filter, and the geological makeup of a region greatly impacts what is removed from surface water before it reaches the aquifer below. However, nitrates can pass through soil fairly readily if there is a lack of organic matter and plant roots to absorb the nutrient.
“Sand is an excellent material to remove bacteria,” Hanten explains. “Regions with sandier soil will see lower instances of bacteria in the aquifer. But sand can’t hold on to nutrients such as nitrate, so you may find higher levels in those areas.”
On the other hand, areas where the geological makeup includes thin soils over fractured rock allow much more to flush down into the water table. As contractors and pump professionals have a solid understanding of an area’s soil quality and geological aspects, you’re in the perfect position to help homeowners understand these factors and how it impacts groundwater quality.
Do I have nitrates in my well water?
The only way to know for sure is to test the water. Public awareness and proper testing are two of the most important ways contractors and pump installers can contribute to conversations around nitrate in the water supply. You should be able to supply your customers with the testing services they need to find out if they should be concerned about nitrate and other contaminants.
The federal standard for nitrate in drinking water is a maximum of 10 milligrams per liter (10 mg/L), which was established in the early 1990s as an acceptable level for infants over 6 months old.
While not every state requires nitrate testing, you should test for it when drilling a new well to make sure you’re giving customers a well with low nitrate levels. The same testing should be done during pump work.
“If there are nitrate concerns, you may want to do further testing for herbicides, pesticides, or pharmaceuticals,” Hanten says. “Talk to experts at a state-certified lab to see what further testing might be necessary.”
Of course, contractors and pump professionals don’t have control over what enters the aquifer over time. You’ll need to explain to homeowners groundwater quality is always changing, and nitrate levels can fluctuate with the seasons. It is good to recommend they continue to have their water tested at least once a year to keep an eye on what is in their well water.
How do nitrates get into groundwater and who is to blame?
When homeowners learn about elevated levels of nitrate in their water, they’ll want to know where it came from. You’ll need to explain the most likely sources.
“Wherever a nutrient is added to the land surface, there is an increased risk of nitrate ending up in the aquifer, especially if the soil is saturated with nutrients or doesn’t have the ability to hold on to them,” Hanten says.
That means nitrate could come from fertilization of farm fields, manure spreading and storage, as well as fertilization of golf courses, lawns, and gardens. Septic systems are another common cause of nitrate contamination.
“Septic systems are designed to remove bacteria, not nutrients like nitrate,” Hanten explains. “Wastewater goes into a drain zone that’s below the root systems of plants and trees that would absorb those nutrients. So, eventually the nitrate makes its way down into the aquifer.”
The tendency is to want to point fingers at one particular cause, which often ends up being agricultural practices. But don’t be too quick to blame farms when there are many other potential contributors.
Contractors can help homeowners by assessing the situation, including the geological makeup and possible sources, so customers can make informed decisions about fixing water quality.
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Is a new well required?
Drilling deeper or moving a water well to a new location should certainly be explored as an option for addressing nitrate contamination.
“In some areas of the country, there may be high levels of nitrate in a shallow aquifer, and contractors may be confident that drilling deeper will go beyond a confining area into a different aquifer that is protected from surface water infiltration,” says Hanten. “However, that’s not going to be possible in every situation.”
It may also be the case that a well has structural issues or isn’t up to code and needs to be fixed. Contractors should avoid any sort of guarantee they can eliminate nitrate from the water supply.
How can I protect my family?
While fixing or drilling a new well is certainly a viable option for addressing nitrate contamination, you can’t change the contents of the water a well is pulling from the ground.
If a new well isn’t an option or won’t solve the problem, identifying a water treatment solution is a possibility that will give your customers some peace of mind. The best option is a reverse osmosis system. RO reduces nitrates by as much as 80%, and it also greatly reduces levels of pesticides, herbicides, and pharmaceuticals that may come along with nitrate.
Contractors and pump installers who also offer residential water treatment solutions like RO installation can diversify their businesses and extend the ways they help homeowners.
Nitrate contamination is not a new problem, but there is evidence to suggest it may be getting worse. The nitrates showing up in well water today may have taken decades to get down into shallow aquifers.
As we construct housing in rural areas, feed our desire for perfectly green lawns, and strive to increase production in farm operations, we are putting increasing pressure on the groundwater resource. The only way to truly curb this problem is proposing land use changes. For now, though, well and pump professionals can support homeowners by offering short-term solutions while raising awareness and encouraging regular testing.
Contractors and pump installers should be the first people residents talk to when exploring corrective actions for nitrates. Based on that conversation, homeowners can decide whether they want to explore a new well, begin buying bottled water, or find effective water treatment solutions.
Arm yourself with knowledge and connect with the right partners so you are well equipped to answer your customers’ questions and meet their needs.
Greg Gruett is vice president at Water-Right Inc., a familyowned manufacturer of water treatment products. Gruett also serves as vice president of sales for Mineral-Right, makers of Crystal-Right zeolite media.