Cancer Concerns

Nitrate Exposure and Increased Cancer Rates

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Nebraska has one of the highest rates of pediatric cancer in the United States. A study out of the University of Nebraska Medical Center has found that 63 percent of Nebraska counties exceed the national average for pediatric brain tumors. Health researchers are looking into why. Could there be a connection with nitrate and/or other agrichemicals in the drinking water?

Dr. Jesse Bell, University of Nebraska Medical Center professor of health and environment, stated “Our research shows that Nebraska counties with groundwater nitrate concentrations between 2.1 and 5 mg/L have higher incidence of pediatric brain cancer, pediatric leukemia, and pediatric lymphoma.”

High concentration of nitrate in drinking water has also been linked to increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, stomach cancer, and ovarian cancer.

“Water quality is a top priority for this district,” said LENRD General Manager Mike Sousek. “High nitrate in your drinking water poses health risks for you and your family. While the body of science is still limited on some of these risks, the long-term implications deserve our attention.

Lymphoma Risk and Nitrosatable Agrichemicals

Nitrate isn’t the only chemical contaminant of interest. Atrazine is another widely used agrichemical and one of the most commonly detected pesticides in U.S. drinking water. Atrazine is also nitrosatable. When atrazine and nitrate are present together in drinking water and then consumed they can form nitrosamines in the human stomach. Nitrosamines are known to be carcinogenic and cause birth defects.

One study found that odds of developing lymphoma were significantly higher when exposed to atrazine and nitrate than just nitrate or atrazine alone.

  • The risk of developing B-cell lymphoma is 3.5 times higher for individuals exposed to nitrate and atrazine in drinking water.
  • The non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma risk is 2.5 times higher for individuals exposed to nitrate and atrazine in drinking water.



Economic Costs

To date, no studies have attempted to quantify the health and economic impacts due to nitrate in drinking water in the U.S.  However, a recent study has presented a “first-of-its-kind” comprehensive assessment of nitrate exposure from drinking water.  The study found that up to $1.5 and $6.5 billion in medical and indirect costs may be associated with annual nitrate-attributable cancer cases.

Rhoades et al “Atrazine and Nitrate in Public Drinking Water Supplies and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Nebraska, USA” Environ Health Insights 2013; 7: 15-27

“Geospatial Distribution of Age-adjusted Incidence of the Three Major Types of Pediatric Cancers and Waterborne Agrichemicals in Nebraska” Ouattara B., Puvvula J., Abadi A., Munde S., Kolok A., Bartel-Hunt S., Bell J., Wichman C., Rogan E. Earth and Space Science Open Archive (March 11, 2021)

Ward, Mary H et al. “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 15,7 1557. 23 Jul. 2018, doi:10.3390/ijerph15071557

“Exposure-based assessment and economic valuation of adverse birth outcomes and cancer risk due to nitrate in United States drinking water.”
Temkin A, Evans S, Manidis T, Campbell C, Naidenko O. Environmental Research Vol. 176 (Sept. 2019) 108442