What is your story of water and karst? As a person who has friends and family afflicted by cancer, I was captivated by the story of “Cancer Road” in the recent Sunday’s StarTribune. It makes me wonder if state and local elected officials will feel encouraged to delve into the growing bodies of research that highlight the cause-and-effect relationship of nitrate contaminated drinking water and our health.
Of Karst. 10,317 sinkholes (and counting) exist in Fillmore County with thousands more uncounted that were filled decades ago. These are a fairly well-known karst feature recognized by those of us who live here, but are a wonder to those who visit. A hole that opens up and swallows the earth around it? Unheard of in many parts of the world! And that’s not all; disappearing streams, joints, springs and of course, caves are other features of this karst landscape. These features make our area special, but can also make our groundwater more vulnerable to contamination.
Of Water. Composed of 60% water, our bodies are remarkable. With DNA as a code, they can turn what we consume into body mass or energy. We are what we consume. Humans have known for millennia that we should not eat certain foods or liquids lest we become severely ill or die. We call these extremely inedible substances poisons or toxins. We also know that anything can become a poison if too much is consumed too quickly.
Of Poison: In the mid 20th century, evidence suggested that nitrate-contaminated drinking water greater than 10ppm sometimes led to methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome) under certain conditions, causing infant fatalities. In 1962, the Public Health Service issued its “Drinking Water Standards,” which concluded that public drinking water should not exceed 10 parts per million (ppm). Regarding methemoglobinemia the Public Health Service stated, “Nitrate poisoning appears to be confined to infants during their first few months of life; adults drinking the same water are not affected, but breast-fed infants of mothers drinking such water may be poisoned. Cows drinking water containing nitrate may produce milk sufficiently high in nitrate to result in infant poisoning.”
This information has been known for more than 60 years. 10ppm of nitrates in private well water is critical enough for us to pay attention and make policies to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. According to the conclusions from the Public Health Service, approximately 17% of the Fillmore County well-owners (estimated 1,500 residents) have poison for infants coming from our wells.
Sixty years is a long time, and new research shows adults are unsurprisingly not immune to devastating health hazards from nitrates even as low as 5ppm (half the public health standard). As highlighted in the StarTribune story, colorectal, ovarian, bladder, kidney and thyroid cancers have been attributed to nitrate consumption in U.S. and international studies. This is concerning, particularly because nitrates are often used as merely an indicator of aquifer fragility. With our fractured bedrock, there may be more than just nitrates in wells that test high for it.
Conversations: It is a relief to me knowing where most nitrate contamination comes from. It means we can fix it. We can prevent a future Cancer Road in Fillmore County. But only together. A community problem must have community-minded solutions. Let’s not ignore the problem. Ask yourself if you’re willing to have tough, but productive conversations. And please, we can do this while avoiding the increasingly default “us vs them” pointlessness.
“Each generation is born into this world that is not of their making, confronting challenges that are not of their doing.” – James Burke
We all have an opportunity to contribute to shaping the future, confronting our challenges, together.
We all live downstream, cheers.