Nitrate and Drinking Water from Private Wells
Nitrate is a compound that is formed naturally when nitrogen combines with oxygen or ozone. Nitrogen is essential for all living things, but high levels of nitrate in drinking water can be dangerous to health, especially for infants and pregnant women. Nitrates are also made in large amounts by plants and animals, and are released in smoke and industrial or automotive exhaust.
For more information about nitrate illness and treatment, please visit CDC-ATSDR's nitrates and nitrites page.
Nitrate can occur naturally in surface and groundwater at a level that does not generally cause health problems. High levels of nitrate in well water often result from improper well construction, well location, overuse of chemical fertilizers, or improper disposal of human and animal waste. Sources of nitrate that can enter your well include fertilizers, septic systems, animal feedlots, industrial waste, and food processing waste. Wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding, particularly if the wells are shallow, have been dug or bored, or have been submerged by floodwater for long periods of time.
If you suspect a problem and your drinking water comes from a private well, you may contact your state certification officer for a list of laboratories in your area that will perform tests on drinking water for a fee.
Nitrate may be successfully removed from water using treatment processes such as ion exchange, distillation, and reverse osmosis. Contact your local health department for recommended procedures.
Heating or boiling your water will not remove nitrate. Because some of the water will evaporate during the boiling process, the nitrate levels of water can actually increase slightly in concentration if the water is boiled. Mechanical filters or chemical disinfection, such as chlorination, DO NOT remove nitrate from water.
Remember to have your well water tested regularly, at least once a year, after installing a treatment system to make sure the problem is controlled.
- Page last reviewed: July 1, 2015
- Page last updated: July 1, 2015
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