Ingesting water with high levels of nitrate/nitrite can make people sick. Private drinking water sources (e.g., wells, dugouts, springs) can sometimes contain unsafe levels of nitrates/nitrites. If a baby drinks water with high nitrate/nitrite levels or it’s used to make formula, it might cause blue baby syndrome.
Blue baby syndrome (methemoglobinemia) is an illness that babies younger than 3 months 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 blue baby syndrome include:
Babies younger than 3 months have the highest risk, but other people can get methemoglobinia. You might be at risk if you:
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 depends on the source that’s contributing the most nitrate/nitrite. For example, if the natural source for the aquifer is high in nitrate/nitrite, the molecules will naturally collect and there is no way to stop this. If something on the surface is the main source, like livestock manure, think about managing manure better to stop this from happening. In some cases, if a well was poorly constructed, the problem can let contaminated surface water into the well. The contaminated water may also have high levels of nitrate/nitrite.
Labs report these levels as nitrate and nitrite, or as nitrate-nitrogen (Nitrate N) and nitrite-nitrogen (Nitrite N). According to the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, drinking water is safe if it has less than:
It's important to test your water before a baby is expected. If using the health centre lab, test results can take several weeks – so plan early.
If your water supply has high nitrate/nitrite levels, install:
Contact your 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 increas the nitrate/nitrite level in water.
Yes. If you have high levels of nitrate/nitrite in your water, you need to test it for bacteria.
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 the water tastes, smells, or looks different. Call your local health centre to find out how to test your private drinking water supplies for bacteria or you can find further information on this Alberta Health Services webpage and look under the water sampling section.
Current as of: March 13, 2018
Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services
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