The Difference between Nitrites and Nitrates and How They Affect Our Health

The Difference between Nitrites and Nitrates

Nitrogen can take various forms in nature and is significant for life in both plants and animals. The most widely recognized type of nitrogen found in well water is nitrate. Wells with an undeniable level of nitrates are bound to be privately owned or shallow and influenced by human activity.

What are Nitrites and Nitrates?

Let us first define the two. 

Nitrate (NO3)

Nitrate is a compound that is formed when nitrogen combines with oxygen. Usually, high amounts of nitrate get into drinking water. Nitrate is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Low degrees of naturally occurring nitrate can be typical and it is highly soluble in water, making it readily transported through the soil to groundwater.

Nitrite (NO2)

Nitrite is a compound containing it, like a salt or an ester of nitrous acid. Although commonly absent or present in groundwater to a much lesser degree since it is quickly changed over to nitrate, nitrite (NO2) is a similar contaminant  with comparative actual properties to nitrate that is related with nitrate and the sources of nitrate.

To completely understand the relativity of the two compounds, we have to tackle a little bit about chemistry. The difference between the two chemicals is the oxygen they possess. Nitrates are composed of 3 oxygen atoms with a chemical formula of NO3-, while Nitrites have two oxygen atoms that make a chemical formula of NO2-.

Though relatively passive, nitrates turn into nitrites with the help of bacteria and enzymes found in the mouth and body. In addition, the body produces a large number of nitrates and secretes them in the saliva and into the digestive tract. Nitrates function as an antimicrobial in the digestive system, which helps kill bacteria found in the body like salmonella, then back to the saliva. This process is called Entero-Salivary Circulation.

Nitrites are converted and turned into Nitric Oxide, which is a good chemical. Furthermore, it can also turn into Nitrosamide, which is a bad chemical. Nitrosamide causes certain diseases like cancer when consumed more than the body can take. Nitric oxide helps the body by transmitting arterial cells that relax the system.

Nitric oxide controls the cardiac rhythm and helps in lowering down blood pressure. This is done when it dilates the blood vessels which then, relaxes muscle cells. Nitroglycerin, a beta-blocker, and a derivative of nitric oxide are just one of the drugs responsible for controlling heart rate.

Where are Nitrates found, and What are Their Uses?

Naturally, nitrates are found in foods such as vegetables. Most especially in beetroot, which is used to make beetroot juice that helps increase performance. Also, Nitrates are found in meat. It gives the meat a pinkish or reddish color.

Typical sources of nitrate include:

  • fertilizers,
  • animal wastes, particularly in areas of intensified farming,
  • sewage disposal systems that are not reticulated, and
  • industrial and food processing waste.

Nitrates turn into nitrites due to the help of bacteria which are then converted to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide reacts with the oxygen-binding protein found in meat. Without nitrites, the meat would turn brown very quickly.

Commonly, nitrates taste salty and give color to the meat. Nitrates that are naturally found in beetroot also help increase performance during exercise. In addition, it is a natural enhancer that is mostly consumed by sports enthusiasts. Nitrates function as a preservative that helps in preventing the growth of harmful bacteria in food.

It is mostly used in processed foods like sausages, bacon, hotdogs, and hams. The nitrates are added to the meat that gives a salty taste and eliminates bacterial growth that causes a foul odor, thus preserving the meat from decomposition.

Nitrates VS Nitrites

These two, nitrates and nitrites, are relatively related to one another. They do not go far from one another. The other is just the conversion of the other with the help of certain salivary glands and bacteria. Studies show that both are just as equally hazardous to health.

Researchers conducted a test to check the level of nitrates in vegetables and meat. The test found out that nitrates are abundant in vegetables than in processed meat. On the brighter side, there is a way that nitrosamides can be inhibited by using antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E during the curing or the preservation process.

Nitrates, when exposed to high heat, create nitrosamide and are one of the causes of diseases. Since the processed foods we love to eat are rich in nitrates, they are toxic and unhealthy. Although, Nitrate is less toxic than nitrite and reason why it's used as a food source by live plants.

Furthermore, nitrates are used in fertilizers for agriculture. Nitrates were converted to ammonium, sodium, potassium, and calcium salts commonly used in fertilizers. Excessive fertilization can also lead to eutrophication.

As defined, eutrophication is the process of enrichment of the ecosystem with chemical nutrients such as fertilizers. Eutrophication can create algae that will cover the water sources and lead to scarcity that can also cause changes in the ecosystem.

Much as it helps us in food preservation that provides us these delightful and tasty products and is used as fertilizer in growing plants, the fact of the matter is, it’s still dangerous to our health. As studies have shown, this disease-causing chemical is one of the potent carcinogens. Not only can this carcinogen be found in food, but it is also present in water too.

Nitrate in Drinking Water

Most nitrogenous materials in natural waters will generally convert over to nitrate, so all sources of combined nitrogen, especially organic nitrogen and ammonia, should be considered potential nitrate sources. 

The origin of nitrate in groundwater is from fertilizers, septic systems, and compost storage or spreading operations. The primary inorganic nitrates that may contaminate drinking water are potassium nitrate and ammonium nitrate, both widely used as fertilizers. 

Fertilizer nitrogen not taken up by plants, volatilized, or moved by surface overflow winds up in the groundwater as nitrate. This makes the nitrogen inaccessible to the plants and can likewise bring the focus up in groundwater over the permissible levels for drinking water quality. Nitrogen from compost can be correspondingly lost from fields, farms, or storage areas. Septic systems eliminate just 50% of the nitrogen in wastewater, passing on the other half to filter to groundwater, this way raising groundwater nitrate concentrations. 

How do you know if nitrates or nitrites are in your water?

You can't see, smell or taste nitrates or nitrites. Testing is the best way to know whether nitrates or nitrites are in your drinking water. The health departments suggest testing your private water source for nitrates every five years. 
If human or animal waste contaminates a well, nitrites will be identified first however will rapidly change over to nitrates. Hence, most well water tests are done for nitrates.

Nitrate drinking water standards

Nitrate in drinking water is estimated either as far as the amount of nitrogen present or as far as both nitrogen and oxygen. The federal standard for nitrate in drinking water is 10 mg/l nitrate-N, or 50 mg/l nitrate-NO3, when the oxygen is estimated just as the nitrogen. Except if in any case determined, nitrate levels for the most part refer just to the measure of nitrogen present, and the typical standard, along these lines, is 10 mg/l. 

Dangers to the Health

Nitrates are one of the common causes of diseases in infants not older than six months. Nitrates cause blood disorder wherein abnormal hemoglobin, called methemoglobin, is produced. Methemoglobin can carry oxygen throughout the body; however, methemoglobin cannot effectively release oxygen to body tissues.

This disorder is medically called Methemoglobinemia or commonly called “Baby Blue Syndrome.” The occurrence of methemoglobin is due to iron oxidation in hemoglobin. Iron is unable to be converted from ferrous iron to ferric iron that aids in releasing oxygen. Due to releasing oxygen in body tissues, lack of oxygen occurs in the body organs. Methemoglobinemia can be treated with the help of Methylene Blue.

High nitrate levels may also affect the oxygen-carrying ability of the blood of pregnant women.

Fortunately doctors can treat Methemoglobinemia and babies can make a full recovery whenever treated immediately. Likewise, health risks are lowered for kids older than six months old and grown-ups. For more data on the dangers of nitrate consumption, consult your primary care physician.

Can you remove or lower the levels of nitrates in your water?

Nitrate is easily dissolved in water, and there is no basic approach to eliminate nitrate from water. Even though it is customary to consider boiling, softening, or filtration as a method for purifying water, none of these techniques diminish nitrate contamination. 

Boiling up the water before drinking it doesn't eliminate nitrate. In reality, boiling causes a portion of the water to evaporate, which expands the nitrate concentration.

Softening and filtration do nothing at all to eliminate nitrate. However, you can lower nitrate levels in drinking water with treatment. Re-test for nitrates after any treatment system is introduced to ensure levels are below the drinking water standard.

It is indicated below some accessible solutions. It depends on the well owner to assess the particular circumstance that influences their well and decide the correct answer.

Immediate Solution 

If the nitrate concentration in your water is high, an immediate solution is to use an alternative water source for drinking, cooking, and mixing baby formula (like bottled water). Try not to BOIL the water that is high in nitrate – it worsens the issue. 

Long-term Solution 

For a long-term solution, you can treat the water to eliminate the nitrate. Treatment advancements that eliminate nitrate include reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and distillation. Each system has benefits and weaknesses, and no single method will address all water quality issues. 

  • Anion Exchange 
Anion exchange is a treatment like water softening. However, it uses an alternate media that trades nitrates for chloride. This is installed as a whole house system (point-of-entry or POE). 
  • Reverse Osmosis 
This system uses a synthetic membrane that permits water to go through; however, it leaves nitrates. The membrane layer is continually rinsed. This system is commonly installed under a kitchen sink (point-of-use or POU) yet can likewise be installed as a POE system.

How to Protect your Family from this Toxic Chemical?

There are ways to prevent nitrate toxicosis. Such ways are minimizing consumption of processed food that is rich in nitrates, eating organic food that uses organic fertilizers, eating a diet that is high in antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E that inhibits nitrates, and most importantly, making sure that drinking water is free from chemicals and other substances that are present in water.

As a family members, we make sure that we only want what’s best for our family to keep them healthy and free from diseases. Since those who are gravely affected are infants not older than six months due to a weak resistance, we are not aware that the water we provide them is contaminated with nitrates.

Water and formulated milk is the only source that can keep them hydrated aside from breast milk. One way to keep the assurance is to make sure that drinking water is filtered and purified. Some purifiers usually use chemicals as reagents to filter water, but scientists have found a way to purify water without the use of toxic chemicals.

Water purification methods for nitrate contamination are distillation, reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and filtration. Nitrates are not removed from water by boiling, adding softening agents, or activating charcoal water purification filters. 

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