Staff Editorials

Potential health effects must be part of water quality study and debate

Iowa’s water quality debate, sparked largely by the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit against officials in three rural counties over farm nitrate contamination in the Raccoon River, has inspired its share of panel discussions this spring. At one of those discussions in Fort Dodge earlier this month, Rockwell City farmer and well-known agriculture leader Bill Horan wondered what all the fuss is about.

“I think the nitrate problem has been blown out of proportion,” Horan told an audience at Iowa Central Community College.

“There’s nobody in Iowa I know who’s been harmed by nitrates,” Horan said. “It’s not a health hazard in Iowa.”

He said there hasn’t been a case of “blue baby syndrome,” an illness in infants attributed to nitrates, since the 1970s.

Horan is right about the prevalence of babies stricken with methemoglobinemia, a condition which impairs blood’s ability to carry oxygen. One of the condition’s most common causes, according to the World Health Organization, is nitrate in drinking water. The Iowa Department of Public Health confirms that they are unaware of any infant cases of methemoglobinemia related to drinking water for four decades.

One reason for that is water utilities such as the Des Moines Water Works are required by federal law to keep drinking water nitrate levels below 10 milligrams per liter. The high cost of running the water works’ nitrate removal system, paid by the utility and its customers, led to the lawsuit.

But do the potential human health effects of nitrate exposure begin and end with blue babies? It’s an issue we believe our elected leaders must explore and consider as they craft the state’s plan to clean up and protect its waterways. Public health shouldn’t be a back-burner issue in the water debate.



Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the voluntary blueprint for reducing farm fertilizer pollution, is focused on reducing Iowa’s contribution to the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s where nitrate contamination running off farm fields in the heartland robs marine life of oxygen.

But what’s the impact on hundreds of thousands of Iowans who live in 35 municipalities that draw water from surface sources more susceptible to nitrate contamination, including Des Moines, Davenport and Council Bluffs? There are also more than 200,000 Iowans who draw drinking water from unregulated private wells, some shallow enough to be affected by nitrates.

At the Fort Dodge panel discussion, Jennifer Terry, environmental advocacy leader for the Des Moines Water Works, insisted blue baby syndrome is not the whole story. She pointed to research being conducted by the Center for the Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa.

If you haven’t heard of CHEEC, you’re not alone, even though it’s been around for nearly 30 years, gathering data on contaminants in Iowa’s public drinking water sources and collecting health information, including data on birth defects and cancer compiled by the University of Iowa and information from the Iowa Women’s Health Study. The study has been surveying Iowa women on their health and lifestyle since the 1980s.

The center was created as part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 — an ambitious, far-reaching bill which took aim at contamination from leaky underground storage tanks, landfills, agriculture and other sources — along with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

CHEEC’s $425,000 annual budget comes from a tonnage fee on fertilizer and a registration fee on pesticides.

Peter Weyer, CHEEC’s director, says researchers have been crunching the water database and health data together on a series of peer-reviewed studies in cooperation with the National Cancer Institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other universities.

“We’re looking at populations that have been consuming public water for long periods of time, mostly in the excess of 10 and even 20 years on the same water source, with various levels of nitrate generally under the maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per million. And we’re seeing some associations with some of these cancers,” said Weyer, referring to bladder, colon and thyroid cancers.


All of these things make sense because there’s a biological plausibility as to how nitrate works in the body,” Weyer said.

It should be noted that “associations” doesn’t mean the water nitrates-cancer link is definitive. It means research has found that there appears to be a significant elevated risk among groups exposed to drinking water nitrates compared to groups not exposed.

“So that is an indication that we need to follow up on that to see if we can make more sense out of what it might be,” said Weyer, who has been with the center since 1988. “Nitrate, we feel, at this stage, is something that absolutely needs to be researched more.“


The center and its counterpart institutions were expressly created in 1987 to provide data and research to inform public policy decisions. And yet, as state lawmakers weighed the merits of various water quality improvement strategies this year, no one from CHEEC was invited to testify about what researchers have found.

CHEEC’s research is the sort of information elected leaders need now. Any “water summit” that occurs before the 2017 legislative session should include CHEEC.

Our elected leaders should follow the lead of the Iowa Environmental Council, which has embarked this summer on an effort to compile and evaluate reams of research on nitrate health risks.

“So often, at a meeting we hear, usually from someone in the ag community, this is a problem that’s being exaggerated. ‘When was the last time you heard of a blue baby?’ So, we thought it was important,” said Ann Robinson, the council’s agriculture policy specialist.

“I think we’ve really neglected that aspect of the issue. We want to make sure we’re bringing attention to this, that we’re doing our homework, so we’re not exaggerating concerns,” Robinson said.


Environmental effects of nitrate pollution are important. That doesn’t mean that potential public health effects should be ignored, especially since the lack of information about those potential health effects is so commonly used to dismiss the severity of the problem and importance of cleaning up Iowa’s water.

And any water quality push that emerges from the Statehouse must contain elements that address public health risks. Those potential risks underscore the need for comprehensive, transparent water quality monitoring and testing with results available to the public and researchers.

“Maintaining the public health is the most important thing about drinking water. We want clean drinking water. We want safe drinking water. We don’t want exposure to something that could potentially harm us or our children,” Weyer said.

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