Nitrate breakdown: understanding our water pollution

The Midwest generates significant amounts of our nation’s nitrate pollution | Photo by Felix Mittermeier on 

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 16th, 2018

As residents of the Midwest, we often talk about nitrate levels in our streams and waterways. But these discussions of nitrate pollution can be hard to picture and process without accurate data and descriptive imagery, two things that will help us break down and understand the magnitude of our nitrate pollution problem.

Nitrate is a groundwater contaminant, and it’s regulated in our drinking water. High levels can cause a host of health issues, especially in infants. The presence of nitrate in the body alters our hemoglobin–the compound in our blood that transports oxygen to our cells for cellular respiration. When altered, our hemoglobin cannot effectively carry oxygen. In adults and older adolescents, the immune system is typically able to fix this issue; infants have less developed defense mechanisms.

In the Midwest, a huge portion of nitrate pollution comes from the runoff generated by different crop fertilizers, making us one of the largest contributors to general nitrate pollution.

Data from 2018 shows us that nitrate load generated in Iowa in 2018 alone reached 626 million pounds, enough to fill about 4,800 railroad tanker cars. This isn’t even the largest yearly scope of nitrate pollution. In 2016, we generated over a billion pounds of nitrate.

These levels are measured and cataloged by IIHR (the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic research–Hydroscience & Engineering). Many universities and research facilities are dedicated to bringing down our nitrate levels through different methods–for now, however, monitoring and understanding how much nitrate we truly produce will help us clean up our waterways.

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