Don't Blame Farmers For Blue Baby Syndrome
July 7, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Another false charge against modern farming has been dismissed.
For 40 years, doctors believed that too much nitrate in drinking water caused a deadly blood disorder in infants known as blue baby syndrome. Infants who have it literally turn blue and sometimes die because of oxygen-deficient blood.
This spring, an editorial in The Des Moines Register in Iowa warned its readers that "even treated water may not be safe for infants or pregnant women" because of nitrate, a byproduct of farm fertilizer.
The Register advised families to "store water today, for use when the nitrate levels soar." Des Moines has already spent millions of dollars lowering nitrate levels in its river-sourced drinking water to the health limit of 10 parts per million.
Other blue baby scare stories emerged from Washington.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based environmental organization, warned in 1997 that "nitrate contamination of drinking water is a serious and growing problem that places thousands of infants at acute risk of contracting potentially deadly methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome)."
The organization recommended cutting the drinking water nitrate limit to 5 parts per million "just to be sure." In addition, the European Union is suing at least 10 member countries for not cutting back farm fertilizer usage to its 10 ppm limit.
Now, a study in the July issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, says that nitrate doesn't cause blue baby syndrome after all.
Recent medical advances have made it clear that the syndrome is a result of severe diarrhea, usually caused by such problems as bacterial contamination, copper poisoning or even lactose intolerance.
There was an excuse for the blue baby fears of the 1940s. Back then, doctors thought nitrate in drinking water could transform into nitrite-- the syndrome's deadly factor.
But now we know that babies produce the nitrite themselves when assaulted by gastroenteritis--inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
Doctors were fooled because most of the blue baby cases involved leaking rural wells contaminated with both bacteria and nitrates from nearby barnyards or septic tanks.
With modern water treatment and the introduction of high-quality wells, blue baby syndrome has almost disappeared. U.S. medical literature reports only one case linked to nitrate-contaminated water in the last 25 years. Great Britain has not had a blue baby syndrome fatality in 40 years, although its fertilizer use has soared.
Further, nitrates in drinking water are not a threat to pregnant women. These charges were dismissed in 1995 by the National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences.
It noted that humans are constantly exposed to huge amounts of nitrates. Half of our nitrate exposure comes from our own bodies, while most of the rest comes from eating vegetables, which reduces our cancer risks.
I admit to a special interest in the blue baby story. The biologist who wrote the study is my son and assistant, Alex Avery. He recommends raising the limit on drinking water nitrates in the developed world from 10 parts to 20 parts per million. That would take the regulatory pressure off good farmers with no additional risk to infants.
Alex says nitrate limits shouldn't be completely eliminated, because at very high levels, somewhere above 40 ppm, nitrates could exacerbate an existing case of gastroenteritis.
Algae blooms are an environmental problem but not a valid target for a health standard. Nitrate should be regulated where it causes environmental problems.
The Des Moines River in Iowa, Lake Decatur in Illinois and the Platte River in Nebraska have no problem with algae blooms. Yet farmers in those cities are being hit with expensive regulations aimed at preventing a blue baby risk that doesn't exist.
President Clinton will shortly recommend that Congress mandate a 20 percent reduction in Corn Belt fertilizer usage to protect the Gulf of Mexico, even though the White House Task Force can find no nitrogen damage in the Gulf.
There's a campaign being waged against plant nutrients, as part of a larger effort to rid America of the high-tech agriculture that makes our urban public uncomfortable.
Yet this is the only food production system that has ever provided real food security for the world. Equally important, it has allowed the world to keep virtually all of its wildlands, despite a surge in population growth.
If rich countries with big stretches of good farmland evict high-yield farmers, how will tropical countries supply their future food needs without clearing tropical forest?
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.