Make sustainable water quality funding a priority

Ann Robinson, agricultural policy specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council, works to promote conservation and water quality.
Ann Robinson, agricultural policy specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council, works to promote conservation and water quality.

It was disappointing to read in the Feb. 25 Gazette that Iowa legislative leaders are backing away from promises to make sustainable funding for water quality a priority this session (“Improvements to Iowa water quality on hold at state legislature”). We are also concerned to hear that many legislators believe the nitrate drinking water standard of 10 parts per million (ppm) “is unnecessarily stringent” when public health research suggests the opposite — that even lower levels pose serious risks to human health.

The current drinking water standard was set to protect infants from methemoglobinemia, known as Blue Baby Syndrome. This potentially fatal condition, often linked to high nitrate levels in formula, led our country and many others to adopt the 10 ppm standard in the 1960s. Since then, many health studies have found elevated nitrate in drinking water associated with a variety of other health problems. A number of the studies suggest that the drinking water standard may not be stringent enough to protect public health.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) recently published a summary of peer-reviewed research, conducted in Iowa and worldwide, which indicates that exposure to nitrate in drinking water at 5 ppm — or even lower — significantly increases risks for several birth defects and bladder and thyroid cancers. The report, “Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans,” is available at www.iaenvironment.org

While the nitrate pollution problem in Des Moines’ drinking water gets most of the attention, this is not just a big-city or central Iowa problem. A total of 16 violations of the nitrate drinking water standard occurred in the state’s public water supplies in 2015, and about 40 municipal systems are considered at high risk to exceed the standard. Many of the at-risk communities are small towns. Studies also show that about 15 percent of private wells used for drinking water in rural areas do not meet the standard.

Nitrate pollution is a health concern across Iowa. We need to let legislators know that we want them to act to improve water quality and protect public health. Backsliding on drinking water protection should not be up for debate.

• Ann Y. Robinson is an agriculture policy specialist for the Iowa Environmental Council

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