Methemoglobinemia: nitrate toxicity in rural America

Am Fam Physician. 1992 Jul;46(1):183-8.


Nitrates are frequently found in vegetables and ground water. Nitrate levels in ground water have increased over the past two decades because of the heightened use of nitrogenous fertilizers. Following ingestion, nitrates are converted to nitrites by fecal organisms. Nitrites are absorbed and form methemoglobin, which interferes with the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin. Infants are particularly susceptible to nitrate poisoning because fetal hemoglobin is more readily oxidized to methemoglobin. In infants, the most common source of nitrate exposure is well water, which is mixed with infant formula. Affected infants may present with asymptomatic cyanosis, which can progress to dyspnea and lethargy or coma. Blood methemoglobin concentrations are elevated. Treatment consists of the administration of oxygen and intravenous and oral methylene blue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Environmental Pollutants / poisoning
  • Food Analysis
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Methemoglobinemia / diagnosis
  • Methemoglobinemia / etiology*
  • Methemoglobinemia / therapy
  • Nitrates / analysis
  • Nitrates / metabolism
  • Nitrates / poisoning*
  • Risk
  • Rural Health*
  • Rural Population
  • United States
  • Water Supply / analysis


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Nitrates