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Nitrates in Your Water?

Nitrate is one of the most common groundwater contaminants in rural areas. Nitrate is an inorganic compound that occurs under a variety of conditions in the environment, both naturally and synthetically. It is regulated in drinking water primarily because excess levels can cause methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby" disease. Although nitrate levels that affect infants do not pose a direct threat to older children and adults, they do indicate the possible presence of other more serious residential or agricultural contaminants, such as bacteria or pesticides.

Short-term exposure to drinking water with a nitrate level at or just above the health standard of 10 mg/l nitrate-N is a potential health problem primarily for infants. Babies consume large quantities of water relative to their body weight, especially if water is used to mix powdered or concentrated formulas or juices. Also, their immature digestive systems are more likely than adult digestive tracts to allow the reduction of nitrate to nitrite. In particular, the presence of nitrite in the digestive tract of newborns can lead to a disease called methemoglobinemia.

Nitrate in groundwater originates primarily from fertilizers, septic systems, and manure storage or spreading operations. Fertilizer nitrogen that is not taken up by plants, volatilized, or carried away by surface runoff leaches to the groundwater in the form of nitrate. This not only makes the nitrogen unavailable to crops, but also can elevate the concentration in groundwater above the levels acceptable for drinking water quality. Nitrogen from manure similarly can be lost from fields, barnyards, or storage locations. Septic systems also can elevate groundwater nitrate concentrations because they remove only half of the nitrogen in wastewater, leaving the remaining half to percolate to groundwater.

Nitrates form when microorganisms break down fertilizers, decaying plants, manures or other organic residues. Usually plants take up these nitrates, but sometimes rain or irrigation water can leach them into groundwater. Although nitrate occurs naturally in some groundwater, in most cases higher levels are thought to result from human activities. Common sources of nitrate include:

  • Fertilizers and manure
  • Animal feedlots
  • Municipal waste water and sludge
  • Septic systems, and N-fixation from atmosphere by legumes, bacteria and lightning.


Health Effect of Nitrates

Single Nitrate Filter w/Housing
Nitrates-Iron-Hydrogen Sulfide Double Filter w/Housing
Nitrate Filter
Nitrates-Iron-Hydrogen Sulfide

High nitrate levels in water can cause methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome, a condition found especially in infants under six months. The stomach acid of an infant is not as strong as in older children and adults. This causes an increase in bacteria that can readily convert nitrate to nitrite (NO2). Do not let infants drink water that exceeds 10 mg/l NO3-N. This includes formula preparation.

Nitrite is absorbed in the blood, and hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying component of blood) is converted to methemoglobin. Methemoglobin does not carry oxygen efficiently. This results in a reduced oxygen supply to vital tissues such as the brain. Methemoglobin in infant blood cannot change back to hemoglobin, which normally occurs in adults. Severe methemoglobinemia can result in brain damage and death.

Pregnant women, adults with reduced stomach acidity, and people deficient in the enzyme that changes methemoglobin back to normal hemoglobin are all susceptible to nitrite-induced methemoglobinemia. The most obvious symptom of methemoglobinemia is a bluish color of the skin, particularly around the eyes and mouth. Other symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness or difficulty in breathing. Take babies with the above symptoms to the hospital emergency room immediately. If recognized in time, methemoglobinemia is treated easily with an injection of methylene blue.

Healthy adults can consume fairly large amounts of nitrate with few known health effects. In fact, most of the nitrate we consume is from our diets, particularly from raw or cooked vegetables. This nitrate is readily absorbed and excreted in the urine. However, prolonged intake of high levels of nitrate are linked to gastric problems due to the formations of nitrosamines. N-nitrosamine compounds have been shown to cause cancer in test animals. Studies of people exposed to high levels of nitrate or nitrite have not provided convincing evidence of an increased risk of cancer.


Although there is no enforceable drinking water standard for livestock, do not allow animals to drink water with more than 100 mg/l NO3-N. This is especially true of young animals. They are affected by nitrates the same way as human babies. Older animals may tolerate higher levels.

Ruminant animals (cattle, sheep) are susceptible to nitrate poisoning because bacteria present in the rumen convert nitrate to nitrite. Nonruminant animals (swine, chickens) rapidly eliminate nitrate in their urine. Horses are monogastric, but their large cecum acts much like a rumen. This makes them more susceptible to nitrate poisoning than other monogastric animals.

It is difficult to determine the toxicity of nitrate in animals because it depends on the rate at which the substance is consumed. A few hundred milligrams of nitrate may cause poisoning if consumed in a few hours. But spread over a whole day, 1,000 mg nitrate may cause no signs of toxicity.

Common symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, muscular weakness or poor coordination. Affected animals will have blood that is a chocolate-brown color. If the problem is diagnosed in time, they can fully recover with a treatment of methylene blue. Pregnant animals may abort within a few days.

Nitrate also exists in animal feeds and fodder. Drought-stressed forage plants commonly have high nitrate levels. These feeds can have an additive effect when consumed with high nitrate drinking water.

How Do You Filter Nitrates From Your Water?

An ideal, low cost method for removing Nitrates is a system much like a water softener only it contains a Type II strong base Cation resin, which the Fresh Water Depot Nitrate Water Filters use. Cation resin is a negatively charged resin bead that exchanges positively charged ions in the water to remove nitrates.

Filtering out Nitrates

There are two basic types of water filter. Those that are installed inside a water ionizer and those that are installed outside a water ionizer or as a standalone filter. External filter systems can be configured in any number of stages with each stage removing a particular type or group of contaminants. Removing one type or group of contaminants is often considered a 1-Stage filter (i.e. removing either chlorine, fluoride-lead-arsenic, or nitrates). Filters can be combined to form any number of stages to form: 2-Stage, 3-Stage, and even 7-Stage (i.e. reverse osmosis) filter systems. How many stages you need to filter your water depends on the possible contaminants in your water. The most common water contaminants include:

By combining different filters into a 2-Stage or 3-Stage system, you can remove multiple contaminants to produce a higher quality drinking water than with just a 1-Stage filter. Reverse osmosis filtration systems are more expensive, however, they are recommended for removing the highest percent (up to 99%) of contaminants from your water.

Please contact our customer support center for help with your water ionizer questions.

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