Nitrate and nitrite are forms of nitrogen that are in soil and water. Nitrate/nitrite can collect in well water. When levels of nitrate/nitrite are high, it can make people sick.
You can’t taste or smell nitrate and nitrite.
The most common sources of nitrate/nitrite include:
Nitrate and nitrite dissolve in water. If the aquifer that supplies your well has lots of these molecules, the water will carry them to your drinking water tap. How much nitrate/nitrite ends up in your water depends on the source that’s contributing the most nitrate/nitrite.
For example, if the natural source for your aquifer is high in nitrate/nitrite, the molecules will naturally collect and there is no way to stop this. But if something on the surface is the main source, like livestock manure, you can think about managing manure differently to stop the nitrate/nitrite from getting into your water.
In some cases, if a well was poorly constructed, contaminated surface water can get into your water. The contaminated water may also have high levels of nitrate/nitrite.
Drinking water with high levels of nitrate/nitrite can make you sick. Drinking water includes all water used to drink or prepare drinks (including infant formula) and the water we use for cooking.
Private drinking water sources like wells, dugouts, and springs can sometimes contain unsafe levels of nitrate/nitrite. If a baby drinks water with high nitrate/nitrite levels or if it’s used to make formula, it might cause methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome).
Methemoglobinemia is an illness that babies younger than 3 months old can die from. It can be caused by drinking water with high levels of nitrate/nitrite.
Methemoglobinemia affects how the blood carries oxygen. As it progresses, symptoms get worse and the skin starts to turn blue.
Symptoms of methemoglobinemia include:
Babies younger than 3 months have the highest risk, but other people can get methemoglobinemia. You might be at risk if you:
Your water can be tested to see how much nitrate/nitrite is in it. Learn more about testing your drinking water in Alberta.
Labs can report nitrate/nitrite levels as nitrate and nitrite, or as nitrate-nitrogen (Nitrate N) and nitrite-nitrogen (Nitrite N).
According to Health Canada’s
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, drinking water is safe if it has less than:
If you have your own source of drinking water, like a well, dugout, or spring, it's important to test your water before your baby’s due date. Learn more about
testing your drinking water in Alberta. If you are using the health centre lab, test results can take several weeks so plan to test your water early.
If your water supply has high nitrate/nitrite levels, install a certified water treatment system:
It’s important to test and maintain your treatment system to make sure it works well.
local public health inspector to talk about ways to treat your water.
If you don't want to install a treatment system, use another water source for drinking water like:
Boiling water lowers the risk of it being contaminated with bacteria, but it does
not remove nitrate/nitrite. Boiling will
increase the nitrate/nitrite level in your water.
Yes. If you have high levels of nitrate/nitrite in your water, you need to test it for bacteria. Learn more about
testing your drinking water in Alberta.
It’s recommended to test private well water for bacteria 2 times a year. The best time to do this is in the spring (after snow has melted), after a very long dry spell, or after a very heavy rain. It’s also a good idea to test for bacteria any time your water tastes, smells, or looks different.
Call your local health centre to find out
how to test your private drinking water supplies for bacteria.
Current as of: April 26, 2022
Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services
This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.