Nitrate-Nitrite Nitrogen

Poorly operated wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, and sewage leaks can add nitrogen to streams.

Why Nitrate, Nitrite, and Nitrogen Are Important

Nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements. About 80 percent of the air we breath is nitrogen. It is found in the cells of all living things and is a major component of proteins. Inorganic nitrogen may exist in the free state as a gas N2, or as nitrate NO3-, nitrite NO2-, or ammonia NH3+. Organic nitrogen is found in proteins and is continually recycled by plants and animals.

Environmental Impact:

Nitrogen-containing compounds act as nutrients in streams and rivers. Nitrate reactions [NO3-] in fresh water can cause oxygen depletion. Thus, aquatic organisms depending on the supply of oxygen in the stream will die. The major routes of entry of nitrogen into bodies of water are municipal and industrial wastewater, septic tanks, feed lot discharges, animal wastes (including birds and fish) and discharges from car exhausts. Bacteria in water quickly convert nitrites [NO2-] to nitrates [NO3-].

Nitrites can produce a serious condition in fish called "brown blood disease." Nitrites also react directly with hemoglobin in human blood and other warm-blooded animals to produce methemoglobin. Methemoglobin destroys the ability of red blood cells to transport oxygen. This condition is especially serious in babies under three months of age. It causes a condition known as methemoglobinemia or "blue baby" disease. Water with nitrite levels exceeding 1.0 mg/l should not be used for feeding babies. Nitrite/nitrogen levels below 90 mg/l and nitrate levels below 0.5 mg/l seem to have no effect on warm water fish.

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