NEWS RELEASE: October 21, 2020
Contact: Brian Gumm
(202) 747-0698 x4
Dangerous nitrate pollution has contaminated private drinking water wells and public water utilities in several regions across the United States, posing a significant threat to people's health. A new report from the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) indicates that this problem has reached Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore, an agricultural area that's home to hundreds of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and millions of chickens.
Nitrates form when manure and fertilizer break down. When manure is overapplied or mismanaged, rainfall or irrigation can cause nitrates to trickle down through soil into groundwater.
"A single poultry CAFO raising 82,000 laying hens can produce 2,800 tons of manure a year, more than three times the amount produced by the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore each year," said Darya Minovi, CPR Policy Analyst and co-author of Tainted Tap: Nitrate Pollution, Factory Farms, and Drinking Water in Maryland and Beyond. "Though private well testing data is limited, our investigation found indicators that CAFO pollution is contaminating the groundwater that residents rely on for their drinking water. Since nitrates are colorless, tasteless, and odorless, most families don’t even know that it’s in their water."
Minovi and co-author Katlyn Schmitt examined currently available data in Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset counties. They found:
Drinking water contaminated with nitrates can contribute to a host of health problems, including certain types of cancers, pregnancy complications, and blue baby syndrome, a condition that can be fatal to infants. Cancer (especially colorectal cancer) and infant mortality rates in Lower Eastern Shore counties are among the highest in Maryland.
"These findings are troubling on their own, but they raise larger questions," said Schmitt. "What don’t we know about nitrate contamination in private wells and public water sources on the Lower Eastern Shore? Are health hazards lurking just beneath the surface, unknown and unaddressed because of a lack of testing and transparency? Additional investigation and more testing are needed to determine the extent of nitrate pollution and its impacts in this region."
Maryland and other states are not doing enough to protect their residents from nitrates in drinking water. In a nationwide comparison of protective policies and programs for private wells, the report's authors found that Maryland ranked among the five states with the fewest policies. No state in the country requires periodic testing of private well water, and only a handful offer lower-cost test kits for families who want to test their water on a regular basis.
"Unfortunately, nitrates cannot be removed from water through boiling or chemical disinfection and require costlier treatment systems," said Minovi. "Well owners in Maryland and beyond are generally expected to take the safety of their drinking water into their own hands, even though many do not have the financial or technical means to do so. This results in disparate impacts on low-income families who cannot afford testing or household treatment of water contaminated with nitrates."
To better protect Marylanders from nitrates, the report's authors provide a set of recommendations, including the following:
Additional recommendations and the full text of the report are available on CPR's website at https://bit.ly/taintedtaprpt.
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