What are the Consequences of High Levels of Nitrogen in Water

Nitrogen Levels in Water

What are the Consequences of High Levels of Nitrogen in Water

Nitrogen in water is a critical aspect of water needed for thriving aquatic ecosystems. While nitrogen is essential for plant growth and the environment, excessively high levels of nitrogen in water can have detrimental effects. In this blog, we’ll explore the consequences of elevated nitrogen levels in water and why it matters.



Understanding Nitrogen in Water

Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element found in various forms in the environment. Two of the most common forms in water are nitrate (NO3-) and ammonium (NH4+). These forms of nitrogen can enter water sources through a variety of pathways, including agricultural runoff, industrial discharges, and sewage. While low levels of nitrogen are essential for the growth of aquatic plants and algae, excessive nitrogen can disrupt the delicate balance of aquatic ecosystems.

Nitrogen recycling
Nitrogen recycling is the natural process where nitrogen compounds from decaying organic matter and waste are broken down by bacteria into ammonia, which can then be used by plants as a nutrient. These plants are later consumed by animals, and when plants and animals die, nitrogen returns to the soil, completing the cycle.

What is the Difference Between Nitrogen and Nitrates?

Nitrogen and nitrates are related but different chemical compounds:

  1. Nitrogen (N2): Nitrogen is a gaseous element that makes up a significant portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. It exists as a diatomic molecule, N2, consisting of two nitrogen atoms bonded together. Nitrogen gas is relatively inert and does not readily react with other substances under normal conditions. It is essential for various biological processes and is a crucial component of proteins and DNA.
  2. Nitrates (NO3-): Nitrates are chemical compounds that contain nitrogen, oxygen, and other elements. They are composed of one nitrogen atom, three oxygen atoms, and carry a negative charge, represented as NO3-. Nitrates are highly soluble in water and are commonly found in the environment. They can be naturally occurring in soil and water or result from human activities like the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers and the decomposition of organic matter. Nitrates can be problematic when they accumulate in high concentrations in water sources, as they can have adverse effects on human health and the environment.


The Impact of Excessive Nitrogen in Water on Aquatic Ecosystems

  1. Algal Blooms: Elevated nitrogen levels in water can lead to algal blooms, which are rapid, excessive growths of algae. These blooms can have serious consequences for aquatic ecosystems. When the algae die and decompose, they deplete oxygen levels in the water, leading to “dead zones” where fish and other aquatic life cannot survive. Examples of damaging Algae Blooms can been seen in Lough Neagh, a lake located in Northern Ireland.
  2. Harm to Fish and Wildlife: Nitrogen pollution can harm fish and wildlife in multiple ways. The reduced oxygen levels can suffocate fish, and some forms of nitrogen, like ammonia, can be directly toxic to aquatic life. High nitrogen levels can also disrupt the food chain by promoting the growth of certain species over others.
  3. Changes in Water Chemistry: Elevated nitrogen levels can lead to changes in water chemistry, including increased acidity. This can further impact the health of aquatic organisms and disrupt the balance of the ecosystem.
Algae Bloom at Lough Neagh
Algae Bloom at Lough Neagh

The Threat to Human Health And The Preventable Outcome

Excessive nitrate levels or nitrogen in water can pose risks to human health. High levels of nitrates in drinking water can be harmful, especially for infants.

  • Nitrates can interfere with the body’s ability to transport oxygen, leading to a condition known as methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome.” It’s essential to monitor and control nitrogen levels in drinking water to ensure public health.
  • Colorectal Cancer
  • Thyroid Disease
  • Neural Tube Defects

Nitrate levels have increased due to increased agriculture using inorganic fertilisers and animal manure that runoff into water resources. The regulations have been set in order to prevent methemoglobinemia but have not incorporated the risk of other health concerns.

People at particular risk of exposure to nitrates in their drinking water include:

People at particular risk of exposure to nitrate in their drinking water include:

    1. Users of Public Drinking Water Supplies: Municipal water treatment plants typically monitor and treat nitrate levels to ensure they comply with safety standards. However, in cases where water treatment is insufficient or fails, consumers of public drinking water supplies may be at risk of nitrate exposure. Infants, in particular, are more vulnerable to nitrate contamination, as their bodies cannot efficiently convert nitrates into harmless substances.
    2. Private Well Owners in Farming Areas: In rural regions where agriculture is prevalent, private well owners may be at heightened risk due to nitrate contamination from agricultural runoff. Fertilisers and animal waste, both rich sources of nitrate, can leach into groundwater, potentially elevating nitrate levels in well water and increasing nitrogen in water. This can pose a risk to individuals who rely on well water for their drinking supply, especially if nitrate levels exceed safety standards.

Southern Scientific Services Role in Water Monitoring to Prevent Excess Nitrogen in Water 

Southern Scientific Services plays a vital role in raising environmental awareness by monitoring and assessing nutrient contamination levels in water sources. In particular it is important to monitor nitrogen in water levels to prevent the exposure risks. Our work contributes to safeguarding water quality and promoting sustainable practices, ensuring a healthier ecosystem and human well-being.


Nitrogen in water

H2.0 – Revealing the Future of Water Quality.

Water Quality Advancements for the Future. With the world progressing at breakneck speed, our water quality in water sources faces some challenges, but there is a silver lining: new and existing technologies could provide potential solutions to upgrading the water quality. In this article, we will delve deep into the

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