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In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks and exposure over a lifetime with an adequate margin of safety, are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG). Contaminants are any physical, chemical, biological or radiological substances or matter in water.
The MCLG for nitrate is 10 milligrams per liter or 10 ppm. EPA has set this level of protection based on the best available science to prevent potential health problems. EPA has set an enforceable regulation for nitrate, called a maximum contaminant level (MCL), at 10 milligrams per liter or 10 ppm. MCLs are set as close to the health goals as possible, considering cost, benefits and the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies. In this case, the MCL equals the MCLG, because analytical methods or treatment technology do not pose any limitation.
The Phase II Rule, the regulation for nitrate, became effective in 1992. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires EPA to periodically review the national primary drinking water regulation for each contaminant and revise the regulation, if appropriate. EPA reviewed nitrate as part of the Six Year Review and determined that the 10 milligrams per liter or 10 ppm MCLG and 10 milligrams per liter or 10 ppm MCL for nitrate are still protective of human health.
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Nitrates and nitrites are nitrogen-oxygen chemical units which combine with various organic and inorganic compounds.
The greatest use of nitrates is as a fertilizer. Once taken into the body, nitrates are converted to nitrites.
Infants below six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL) could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.
This health effects language is not intended to catalog all possible health effects for nitrate. Rather, it is intended to inform consumers of some of the possible health effects associated with nitrate in drinking water when the rule was finalized.