One of the byproducts of industrial food operations is nitrate contamination of surface water and groundwater. Nitrate contamination results from overapplication of fertilizer to crops and from the vast quantities of manure generated by concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where large numbers of poultry, swine, cattle or other animals are housed and raised in confined areas.
Nitrate contamination often occurs in rural areas that rely heavily on well water. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that thousands of community water wells and private wells exceed the EPA’s maximum nitrate contaminant level (MCL) of 10 mg/L or 10 ppm.
Nitrates have been classified by the EPA as a water contagion that requires monitoring. Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of this MCL may become seriously ill, or even die, as a result.
Symptoms include shortness of breath and “blue baby syndrome” or methemoglobinemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder.
Other illnesses and conditions that have been linked to high levels of nitrates in drinking water include:
- thyroid disorders, including cancer
- gastrointestinal illnesses, including cancer
- birth defects
Nitrates are not the only toxins that can contaminate environments near industrial food operations: bacteria, viruses, antibiotics and pesticides are also byproducts of factory farming that can spread into the drinking water supplies of neighboring communities and cause a range of health problems among the people who drink the contaminated water.