Nitrate-based Fertilizers and Water Contamination

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By Nick Law, Staff Writer and Editor for Save The Water™ | September 16, 2015

On July 16, 2015, the government of Alberta issued an emergency alert to the residents of Vulcan County concerning water usage from the Little Bow River, which flows into the Travers Reservoir, because urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) had been accidentally spilled onto nearby private land (CBC News). According to the alert, the water in the river cannot be used for “cooking or bathing” even when boiled. Fortunately, Alberta Environment workers swiftly detected and contained the spill (Hudes). After testing water samples from the Little Bow River and the Travers Reservoir, Alberta Environment workers released a statement on July 19, 2015, claiming that the spill did not present a risk to human health. Thus, the Alberta government lifted the advisory regarding the possible water contamination shortly after (Mcintosh).

If greater quantities of UAN had been spilled, and the reaction from the government had not been so prompt, circumstances could have been much more dire for Alberta. For instance, in 2010, Fujun Yue and a team of researchers published a study of nitrate levels in several water bodies located in Tianjin, China. They collected seventy-two water samples “from rivers, reservoirs, sewage water with bad smell odors and color during sampling, salinized water and other sites,” and found that many of their samples contained concentrations of ammonium nitrate higher than the limit for drinking water – a standard established by the World Health Organization (WHO). Yue and his team attributed their findings to the ubiquitous usage of nitrogen fertilizers due to the large scale of agricultural crops and the resultant high amounts of nitrates being leached into the soil and groundwater (Yue et al. 563-64). There had been no significant fertilizer spills in the region; the contamination occurred due to the sheer prevalence of nitrogen-based fertilizers over an extended period of time.

As stated earlier, the incident in Alberta involved the spillage of UAN, a solution of urea and ammonium nitrate in water that is commonly used as liquid fertilizer on an industrial scale. It cannot be handled without appropriate protective gear such as gloves, thick clothing, and eye protection because it can cause eye and skin irritation upon contact. Additionally, ingesting UAN can cause methemoglobinemia (CFIndustries). Methemoglobinemia is a condition in which an individual’s bloodstream contains too much methemoglobin, “a form of hemoglobin that is useless for carrying oxygen and delivering it to tissues throughout the body” ( The affected individual will experience cyanosis and other symptoms relating to oxygen deprivation that may potentially result in death (CFI Industries). The presence of ammonium nitrate in a water body can also cause high levels of NO3 to accumulate due to nitrification, and long-term consumption of water contaminated by large amounts of NO3 “can induce cancer in a variety of organs, including the stomach, colon, bladder, lymphatics, and hematopoietic system” (Yue et al. 562).\

More than eighty percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is composed of nitrogen, and many naturally-occurring chemical reactions form nitrates (Gordon). However, an excessive amount of nitrates in water bodies can result in severe environmental consequences. As mentioned, UAN is a fertilizer that promotes plant growth; if introduced in sufficient quantities to a water body, it will cause eutrophication –  a high concentration of plant nutrients in water –  which induces algae and other nitrate-consuming plants to grow and decay rapidly. As this event occurs, significant amounts of organic material form, and thereby remove the water body’s oxygen content. This phenomenon is known as anoxia; when it occurs in a water body, fish, invertebrates, and shellfish die from asphyxiation (WRIG).

According to Fleseriu and Oroian, nitrates dissolve easily in water but are extremely difficult to remove. The current methods of removing or eliminating nitrates in water are demineralization by distillation or reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and mixing. All three processes are complicated and expensive to perform, especially in the context of purifying water contaminated by nitrates (Fleseriu and Oroian 111). Nevertheless, nitrate fertilizers will continue to be used due to their effectiveness, relative cheapness, and the world’s vast demand for agricultural produce. With efforts to decrease cases such as the nitrate-based fertilizer issue, Save the WaterTM (STWTM) works to raise water contamination awareness and advocates for life-changing water technologies. Your aid will bring STWTM one step closer toward ensuring access to safe and clean water for the world.


Works Cited

“Definition of Methemoglobinemia.” MedicineNet, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Fleseriu, A. and I. Oroian. “Water Pollution with Nitrates from Agricultural Sources.” ProEnvironment Promediu 3.5 Jun. 2010: 110-112. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Gordon, Nicole. “Nitrogen in the Earth System.” University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Hudes, Sammy. “Authorities probe accidental fertilizer release near Little Bow River.” Calgary Herald. Calgary Herald, 17 July 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Mcintosh, Emma. “No health risk from Little Bow River fertilizer spill, authorities say.” Calgary Herald. Calgary Herald, 19 July 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

“Nitrates and Their Effect on Water Quality —  A Quick Study.” Wheatley River Improvement Group. Wheatley River Improvement Group (WRIG), 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Urea Ammonium Nitrate Solution_28%, 30%, 32% N (UAN): Safety Data Sheet. CFIndustries, 15 May 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

“Vulcan County told to ‘exercise caution’ after Little Bow River fertilizer spill.” CBC News. CBC News, 16 July 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015

Yue, Fujun et al. “Using Nitrogen Isotopic Approach to Identify Nitrate Sources in Waters of Tianjin, China.” Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 85 (2010): 562-567. Springer. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

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