What You Need to Know About Nitrates and Nitrites in Drinking Water

Nitrogen can take different forms in nature and is important for life in both plants and animals. The most common form of nitrogen found in well water is nitrate. Wells with high levels of nitrates are more likely to be privately owned or shallow and affected by human activity.

Health concerns: Are nitrates or nitrites harmful to my health?

There are two health concerns when drinking water with high levels of nitrates or nitrites.

The first is risk of “blue baby syndrome,” also called methemoglobinemia:

  • Poisoning can occur when babies drink formula made with nitrate- or nitrite- contaminated tap water.
  • The baby’s blood is less able to carry oxygen due to poisoning.
  • Affected babies develop a blue-gray color and need emergency medical help immediately.
  • Babies under six months of age are more at risk.

The second is the potential formation of chemicals called nitrosamines in the digestive tract. Nitrosamines are being studied for long-term links to cancer. No standards have been set for this yet.

Source: How do nitrates and nitrites get into my water?

Nitrate contamination of water usually comes from fertilized agricultural fields, septic system failures, or compost piles that are too close to wells. Learn how to take care of your septic system

Testing: How do I know if nitrates or nitrites are in my water?

You cannot see, smell or taste nitrates or nitrites. Testing is the only way to know if nitrates or nitrites are in your drinking water. If human or animal waste contaminates a well, nitrites will be detected first but will quickly convert to nitrates, which is why tests are done for nitrates.

The Health Department recommends testing your well or spring for nitrates every five years. You can order an inorganic chemical test (Kit C) from the Health Department Laboratory, or you can use another certified drinking water lab to test for inorganic chemicals.

Test results: Is my result a problem?

The drinking water standard for nitrates in water is 10.0 mg/L and nitrites is 1.0 mg/L

  • If your final result for nitrate is more than (>) 10.0 mg/L, the level is over the drinking water standard, and the Health Department recommends treating your water.
  • If your final result for nitrate is more than (>) 5.0 mg/L, the level is approaching a level that is unsafe for babies under six months old to consume, and the Health Department recommends treating your water. The contamination may be coming from sources such as runoff from farm fields, manure piles, septic systems or compost piles. Consider addressing these sources as well.
  • If your final result for nitrite is more than (>) 1.0 mg/L, the level is over the drinking water standard, and the Health Department recommends treating your water.

Need help understanding your drinking water test results? Find out how to read your results

Treatment options: Can I remove or lower the levels of nitrates in my water?

Nitrate levels can be lowered in drinking water with one of the treatment systems listed below.

Re-test your drinking water for nitrates after any treatment system is installed to make sure levels are below the drinking water standard.

Financial assistance: Is there funding available to help me pay for my water system or treatment?

Vermont Wastewater and Potable Water Revolving Loan Fund

This program, also known as the On-Site Loan Program, is available to certain Vermont residents for the repair or replacement of failed water supply and on-site wastewater systems. The On-Site Loan Program is funded and administered by the Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation with loan underwriting and servicing provided by the Opportunities Credit Union in Winooski. Your drinking water supply has to be a failed system and you must be living in the residence on a year-round basis to be eligible. The family income cannot exceed 200% of the state median household income. For more information about eligibility and how to apply, call the On-Site Loan Program at 802-461-6051.

The NeighborWorks Alliance of Vermont

The NeighborWorks Alliance is made up of five local organizations offering full affordable housing services for income-eligible individuals. You may qualify for help from this program if you need money to install a water treatment system, drill a well, or repair or replace your septic system. For more information on eligibility, contact the local NeighborWorks Group in your region.

Single Family Housing Repair Loans and Grants

This program offers loans and grants to existing homeowners for well construction, repair and sealing. It's administered by the Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is for low-income families who live in a rural area or a community with a population of 25,000 or less. The family income cannot exceed 50% of the median county income. Individuals who are 62 years of age or older may qualify for a grant or a combination of a loan and a grant. Younger applicants are eligible only for loans.

Burlington, South Burlington, Essex Junction, Winooski and parts of Colchester are ineligible for the program. Even if your property is in an eligible area, your eligibility is still subject to income limits. For more information or to find out if your property is in an eligible area, call the USDA Rural Development Office at 802-828-6022.

Low-interest Loans for Individual Household Wells and Septic Systems

The Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SECAP) has partnered with RCAP Solutions (North Eastern Rural Community Assistance Partnership) to provide low-interest loans to construct, refurbish or replace individual water well systems and septic systems for eligible homeowners. Here are the requirements:

• Your residence must be in an eligible rural area, town, or community (defined as geographic area with 50,000 residents or less) in the RCAP Solutions service area of: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

• You must own (or provide recorded Lifetime Rights) and occupy the home being improved. 

• Your household limit is under the state median income limit.

• New home construction and community water systems are not eligible. 

Learn more about the loan program and fill out the form.

Please contact SERCAP staff for further information by phone at 540-345-1184 ext. 159 or email [email protected]

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