Does the evidence about health risks associated with nitrate ingestion warrant an increase of the nitrate standard for drinking water?

10-10-2006 | Publication

According to this paper, the answer is no. This paper outlines why nitrate in vegetables and fruit is harmless for humans, while it can be harmful in drinking water. There is evidence, albeit scarce, that nitrate in drinking water increases health risks, in particular, the risk of colon cancer. There are still millions in rural areas of Europe and elsewhere exposed to untreated drinking water with a high a nitrate concentration from private wells. The increased potential risk for these people would seem to justify measures to tackle elevated nitrate.


Several authors have suggested that it is safe to raise the health standard for nitrate in drinking water, and save money on measures associated with nitrate pollution of drinking water resources. The major argument has been that the epidemiologic evidence for acute and chronic health effects related to drinking water nitrate at concentrations near the health standard is inconclusive. With respect to the chronic effects, the argument was motivated by the absence of evidence for adverse health effects related to ingestion of nitrate from dietary sources. An interdisciplinary discussion of these arguments led to three important observations.

First, there have been only a few well-designed epidemiologic studies that evaluated ingestion of nitrate in drinking water and risk of specific cancers or adverse reproductive outcomes among potentially susceptible subgroups likely to have elevated endogenous nitrosation. Positive associations have been observed for some but not all health outcomes evaluated.

Second, the epidemiologic studies of cancer do not support an association between ingestion of dietary nitrate (vegetables) and an increased risk of cancer, because intake of dietary nitrate is associated with intake of antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals.

Third, 2–3 % of the population in Western Europe and the US could be exposed to nitrate levels in drinking water exceeding the WHO standard of 50 mg/l nitrate, particularly those living in rural areas.

The health losses due to this exposure cannot be estimated. Therefore, we conclude that it is not possible to weigh the costs and benefits from changing the nitrate standard for drinking water and groundwater resources by considering the potential consequences for human health and by considering the potential savings due to reduced costs for nitrate removal and prevention of nitrate pollution.