One troublesome element that often taints water is nitrogen.
When nitrogen levels get too high, it threatens the health of ecosystems and humans.
But what exactly happens when there’s an excess of this element?
Well, that’s what we are here to discuss today.
This article is going to walk you through what nitrogen is, what happens when there’s an overabundance of nitrogen in water, how it can impact health, and ways to deal with the issue.
But before we begin, don’t worry about dangerous levels of nitrogen in your water at home.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum level of nitrogen in drinking water, which we’ll talk about in more detail.
So, let’s get into it!
1. What is Nitrogen?
We’ve all heard about nitrogen, but do you know what it really is?
Nitrogen is a nonmetallic element that’s represented by the letter N on the periodic table.
The element is completely odorless and colorless; it naturally occurs when animal waste and plants decompose and release the element into the soil (the complete process is known as mineralization), where it eventually gets used by other plants or released into the atmosphere.
In fact, the Earth’s atmosphere is around 78% nitrogen.
Without nitrogen, plants, animals, and humans simply wouldn’t be able to survive–the element helps produce proteins, amino acids, and nucleic acids.
But, like anything, too much of a good thing can create problems.
2. What is The Most Common form of Nitrogen in Water?
Depending on where nitrogen is stored and how it’s being used, the element can take on a few different forms.
The most common form of nitrogen in water is nitrate (NO3), and at high levels, it has the potential to pollute groundwater.
Nitrate (N03) is a chemical compound made up of one part nitrogen and three parts oxygen–in this case, nitrogen is actually the lesser of the two elements.
Other forms of nitrogen found in water are nitrite (NO2), ammonia (NH3), and ammonium (NH4).
These four chemical compounds are considered to be the most bioavailable forms of nitrogen, which allows them to be easily used by organisms in the water.
When levels of nitrogen in water become too high, aquatic species become poisoned and have less oxygen to survive, but that’s not all that happens.
So, let’s take a closer look at the consequences of nitrogen getting into water.
3. What Happens when Nitrogen Gets into Water?
When too much nitrogen gets into water, it causes an increase in algae growth.
The overgrowth takes up huge amounts of the available oxygen and blocks sunlight from reaching the deeper parts of bodies of water.
If conditions become severe enough, aquatic life can’t survive.
Fish and other species will experience nitrogen poisoning and will eventually suffocate, while the plants that aren’t receiving sunlight wither away.
But an excess of algae also causes infrastructure issues.
When it gets into water intakes, it can clog them, resulting in a timely and costly repair.
Algae can also corrode metal pipes and tanks, cause slimy surfaces, and block filters and irrigation equipment.
The good news is that algae typically won’t do permanent damage to equipment or pools.
Contaminated pools can actually become algae-free in as short as twenty-four hours.
However, an unnaturally high amount of algae is still quite the burden, and for aquatic life, it’s a matter of life and death.
4. How Does Nitrogen in Water Affect Humans?
Drinking from a source of water with high nitrogen levels is a serious risk.
Problems begin to arise after prolonged exposure, so don’t worry if you accidentally gulp some river water that has algae.
But people who are consistently drinking groundwater, especially if it’s not being regulated by the city or state government, should be cautious.
So, what are the health risks?
Consuming water that has dangerous nitrate levels can reduce the amount of oxygen a person’s blood can carry.
This can lead to a life-threatening condition called methemoglobinemia.
Infants are especially vulnerable to this condition, which is why it’s also referred to as the Blue Baby Syndrome (people who have conditions such as lung disease, cardiovascular disease, sepsis, and anemia are also at a higher risk of methemoglobinemia).
More research is currently being done to link other conditions with overexposure to water with high nitrate levels.
Researchers are also looking at more serious consequences, such as gastric cancer.
So, nitrogen in water is a health risk that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Anyone who is getting their water from wells, where the chances of nitrogen are high, needs to closely monitor the water quality.
Remember, nitrogen is colorless and odorless, so even if you don’t see or smell it, it could still be there.
5. What Are the Signs of Nitrogen Poisoning?
Symptoms of nitrogen poisoning caused by drinking water vary depending on how much was consumed.
If you notice the person’s skin is beginning to turn blue, that’s a direct sign of methemoglobinemia, and he or she should be taken to the hospital.
Here’s a list of other symptoms nitrogen poisoning could cause.
Increased heart rate
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and there may be a chance your water has high levels of nitrates, you should immediately test the water source.
6. Is There Nitrogen in The Water We Drink?
After reading about the dangerous side effects of nitrogen, you may be surprised to hear that it could be in the water you drink at home.
But what about methemoglobinemia?
No need to worry because the nitrogen levels in state-issued drinking water are safe.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the maximum contaminant level at 10 mg/L in an effort to reduce the rate of methemoglobinemia.
You can check out the agency’s chart that shows the percentage of land in each state that has groundwater with a nitrate level of about 5 mg/L.
Getting water from wells is the most common way people consume dangerous nitrate levels.
EPA strongly urges anyone who relies on wells to test and treat the water as the issue is solely their responsibility.
Sometimes there is nitrogen in the water we drink.
But as long as it’s being monitored by the state government, there should be no cause for concern.
7. What Are the Sources of Nitrogen in Water?
Nitrogen is naturally sourced by the decomposition of animal waste and plants and atmospheric deposition.
In most cases, nature is able to manage the element and maintain the right balance.
However, thanks to human activity, there are new sources of nitrogen that can cause that balance to go awry.
Fertilizers are one of the main causes of nitrogen pollution (in addition to the manure found in livestock units)–runoff is usually how harmful fertilizers are introduced to bodies of water.
In addition, sewage is another common source of nitrogen.
Water reservoirs and natural bodies of water just outside of major cities have faced serious algae issues due to wastewater bringing in harmful products.
Several cities, and some countries, are shifting to green rainwater infrastructure in an attempt to reduce nitrogen pollution.
The primary goal of green rainwater infrastructure is reducing the amount of stormwater entering sewage systems.
8. How Do You Treat Water with High Nitrogen Levels?
Water with dangerous levels of nitrates can be treated and restored.
But how do you go about doing that?
There are three primary ways to remove nitrogen from water: reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and water distillers.
Let’s take a closer look at each one and see how it works.
Reverse osmosis works by pushing pressurized water through a partially permeable reverse osmosis membrane that is able to remove nitrates.
The membrane will also rid the water of other contaminants and particles.
During the process, water will be sent to multiple reverse osmosis tanks, repeating the process until the water has become pure.
The final results will likely still have trace levels of nitrates but nothing that could cause human harm.
The problem with reverse osmosis water is that it typically has a low pH value.
Consuming water with low pH levels could cause gastrointestinal problems and increase the chances of kidney disorders.
The ion exchange process works similarly to water softeners.
When the ion exchange system is used, the water enters a tank where a brine solution is used to regenerate resin beads, replacing nitrates with chloride ions.
In simple terms, the ion exchange process replaces nitrates with chloride ions.
Water that also has high levels of sulfates cannot be used in ion exchange as the process’s ability to remove nitrates will be greatly reduced.
Ion exchange systems can be quite costly, and they also create spent brine, which has to be managed to prevent damaging the environment.
Water distillation is a highly effective way of removing all waterborne contaminants.
The process works by mimicking the Earth’s natural filtration process.
- The water is boiled and converted to steam.
- The steam goes throw cooling coils and falls into jugs as it reconverts to its liquid state.
- The liquid goes through a carbon post-filter.
When water is boiled and converted to a gas, all the containments get left in the pot.
Any contaminants that can convert into a gas will get removed during the final filtration step.
The downside to water distillation is that the process takes around five hours to distill one gallon of water, and the process is quite expensive.
9. Does Boiling Water Remove Nitrates?
Boiling water will not remove nitrates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even warned that boiling water can actually increase nitrate levels.
This can occur because water evaporates, and nitrates do not.
After boiling the water for some time, you’ll be left with less water but the same amount of nitrates.
10. Do Water Filters Remove Nitrates?
Nitrates cannot be removed by carbon filters or sediment filters.
Most filtration systems you find at a grocery store, such as Brita, use carbon filters.
So, don’t think that putting nitrate-dense water in a standard filter is going to be safe to drink.
Another product worth mentioning that doesn’t remove nitrates is LifeStraw.
LifeStraw products are advertised for campers (usually as a resource in emergencies).
They use a hollow fiber ultrafiltration membrane system; however, it does not eliminate nitrates.
Using these products to drink from nitrate-dense bodies of water should only be done in emergencies.
11. Does Chlorine Remove Nitrogen from Water?
Chlorine will not remove nitrogen from water.
It can be used to kill some containments that contain nitrogen, such as urine, oils, sweat, and leaves, but it won’t be enough to fix an issue like a highly nitrogen-saturated pool.
In some cases, pools have to be partially drained and then refilled with water that doesn’t have any nitrates.
Large doses of chlorine can be used to treat algae growth; however, completely removing algae will also require a bit of scrubbing.
12. How Do You Test for Nitrogen in Water?
When you’re testing for nitrogen in water, you want to ensure you’re getting the best results–your health depends on it.
So, the best way to test water is to send samples to a certified water testing lab.
The lab will be able to give you a full breakdown of your water’s makeup.
Another method is to use nitrate test strips.
Although using test strips is cheaper and more convenient, the results won’t be as accurate as using a laboratory.
If you need to frequently test groundwater that you’re consuming, it might be a good idea to use test strips in between sending water samples for official testing.
13. How Do You Prevent Excess Nitrogen in Water?
So, how the heck can you prevent excess nitrogen in water?
In urban environments, the implementation of green rainwater infrastructure can greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen in nearby bodies of water.
Here are some examples of green rainwater infrastructure.
In more remote locations, where wells are commonly used, it’s crucial that the areas surrounding groundwater are not over-fertilized or covered in an abundance of manure.
Runoff can pick up excess fertilizer and manure and cause a world of water-quality issues.
Land that experiences severe runoffs may need to have new drainage systems put in place.
Water is vulnerable.
There is an endless amount of assailants always looking to contaminate it, and when the water’s nitrogen levels shoot through the roof, it’s time to sound the alarm.
Nitrogen in water not only decimates aquatic ecosystems, but it can also have deadly effects on humans.
Luckily, most people don’t have to worry about checking their water for nitrates–state governments take care of that for them.
However, for those who get their water from wells, monitoring water quality should be taken very seriously.
So, I hope this answered all the questions you ever had about nitrogen in water!
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.