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Rural Latinos and farmworkers in the US are disproportionately exposed to nitrate-contaminated drinking water.
This health disparity stems from a larger issue of Latinos generally having less access to clean, safe drinking water in the US.
Join us as Salud America! explores this rising health disparity through a three-part series on Latino drinking water contamination.
Today we will tackle what nitrates are, how prevalent they are in Latino drinking water, and emerging efforts to promote safer water for Latinos and all people.
Part 2 will address drinking water contamination at Superfund sites, its impact on Latinos, and current efforts to promote safer drinking water in these areas.
Part 3 will focus on water insecurity in colonias and the US/Mexico border, and how we can address this health inequity.
How Prevalent Is Nitrate Contamination in Drinking Water?
Nitrates primarily contaminate water systems when inorganic fertilizer and animal manure are used in agricultural areas.
According to the Water Education Foundation, nitrates occur naturally in soil and dissipate when the soil is extensively farmed. Thus, nitrogen fertilizers are applied to replenish the soil to stimulate plant growth. However, nitrates can be toxic, especially when they enter the food chain via groundwater and surface water.
Research suggests that ingesting nitrates could increase risk for colorectal cancer and thyroid disease, as well as methemoglobinemia, low birth weight, preterm birth, and neural tube defects in infants.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a federal limit for nitrate levels in drinking water in 1962, current research suggests that an update to this limit should be reconsidered.
How Are Latinos Affected by Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water?
As Latinos make up 83% of farm workers in the US, they are potentially more likely to live near or in a rural, agricultural area with nitrate-contaminated drinking water.
Dr. Olga Naidenko, researcher and senior science advisor at Environmental Working Group (EWG), published a 2019 study that explored the relationship between cancer cases and nitrate contamination in public water systems.
“Nitrate contamination of drinking water is a serious problem, and especially severe in the nation’s farm country,” Naidenko said in a news release.
For example, according to an article by the EWG, California’s San Joaquin Valley is the nation’s leading agricultural region where Latinos make up the great majority of farmworkers.
In this area, Latinos are disproportionally likely to live in a community with nitrate-contaminated drinking water. In many of these communities, levels of nitrate and other contaminants are so high that residents must buy bottled water for cooking and drinking — a short-term and unsustainable solution that comes with an additional economic and environmental burden.
When combined with chronic concern of exposure to contaminated water, depending on bottled water for basic life necessities can also take a toll on mental health.
For example, in Flint, Michigan, where the water is contaminated with lead, a resident explained that she is tired of water bottles cluttering her house and of eating only microwaved food because she fears cooking even with filtered tap water.
“I’m depressed, I’m angry, my anxiety is running high,” a Flint resident told The New York Times.
Further, research suggests that Latinos relying on private wells, which are common in rural, agricultural areas, have an even higher risk for ingesting nitrate-contaminated water. This is because private wells have higher nitrate concentrations compared to public water systems sourced from groundwater.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that private well users test for nitrate every year, studies show that there are many factors that prevent sufficient well maintenance. These include a lack of maintenance experience and understanding of water quality reports and standards.
For Latinos, substantial socioeconomic challenges can also take priority over testing the private well water quality.
How Can We Promote Safer Water for Latinos and All People?
More than 5.6 million Americans are drinking water with increasingly high amounts of nitrates known to cause health problems. Certain socioeconomic factors of Latino populations, such as farmworker occupations, increase the likelihood of exposure to nitrate-contaminated drinking water.
Organizations and governments across the nation are stepping up to address this issue.
- California’s Nitrate Project is working to protect surface and groundwater resources and ensure safe drinking water for all California residents.
- The EWG has set and is determined to meet water quality goals beyond federal regulatory standards. Their Safe Water Database provides anyone the opportunity to look up the quality of public water systems nationwide. The EWG hopes that information in this database will empower communities to choose the best water quality options for themselves and their families, from looking for home filtration systems to advocating for higher quality drinking water at the local, state, and national levels.
- In partnership with the CDC, ChangeLab Solutions has developed resources for environmental and public health professionals who want to promote safe drinking water for private wells.
- If you have a private well, the Minnesota Department of Health offers tips for preventing and addressing nitrate contamination.
Preventing and mitigating nitrate contamination in drinking water is imperative to the health of Latino communities in rural, agricultural areas. By arming ourselves with knowledge and awareness, we can act on this important public health issue.
You can also play a role in advocating for local systemic change.
Select your county and get a Health Equity Report Card by Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio. In your report card, you will see maps, data, and gauges to compare health equity issues, including environmental concerns, to the rest of your state and nation.
You can email your Health Equity Report Card to local leaders to stimulate community change. Use the data in your materials or share on social media to raise awareness.