Continuing importance of nitrate contamination of groundwater and wells in rural areas

Am J Ind Med. 1990;18(4):449-56. doi: 10.1002/ajim.4700180416.


The contamination of groundwater and rural drinking water supplies by nitrates from livestock and human excrement, other organic waste, or chemical fertilizers is a potential hazard throughout the world. Infant illness and death from nitrate-induced methemoglobinemia is probably often misdiagnosed, perhaps as sudden infant death syndrome, and certainly contributes to the national infant death rate statistics. A 1950 report listed 144 cases of infant methemoglobinemia with 14 deaths in one 30-month period in Minnesota. Infant deaths resulting from misdiagnosis of this preventable, treatable intoxication were still occurring as recently as 1986 in South Dakota. In this state, about 39% of dug or bored wells were unsafe due to high nitrate content, compared with 22% of drilled wells and 16% of driven wells. Properly constructed wells more than 30 m deep are more likely to be safe. Groundwater concentrations of nitrate may be unsafe for consumption, and standards are needed to regulate such contamination. Such standards could serve as guidelines and could be enforceable in the case of water systems dependent on wells.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Methemoglobinemia / etiology*
  • Methemoglobinemia / mortality
  • Nitrates / adverse effects*
  • Rural Population*
  • Water Pollution, Chemical / adverse effects*
  • Water Pollution, Chemical / prevention & control
  • Water Supply / standards


  • Nitrates