You may have never heard of Yakima, WA, so please allow me to introduce you. It’s a cute little town in Eastern Washington with beautiful views of Mount Rainier that I’ve driven through a number of times. Though it sits within view of a fearsome volcano, Yakima was actually listed as one of the 10 safest places to live in the United States — considering only the risk posed by natural disasters — as recently as two years ago.
But not all is well in paradise. In February 2010, researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency sampled 331 homes in the Yakima area, and found that about 20 percent of their wells contained water above the safe standard for nitrate levels. A follow-up study conducted two years later concluded that the most likely source of contamination was the high concentration of dairy farms nearby. Nitrates can percolate into groundwater from fertilizer or manure.
And nitrates are serious business. According to the Yakima Herald:
High levels of nitrates in the water can cause health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children. . . Blue baby syndrome, the common name for “methaemoglobinemia,” occurs mainly in newborns up to 4 months old who are exposed to high levels of nitrates. The nitrates decrease the capacity of the body’s red blood cells to carry oxygen, which, in the more severe cases, cause babies’ skin to show a bluish-brownish color around the hands, feet and mouth.
Affected children may also have trouble breathing and experience vomiting and diarrhea, according to the World Health Organization. In extreme cases, there is significant lethargy, an increase in the production of saliva, loss of consciousness and seizures. Some cases may be fatal.
Other health effects following fetal exposure to elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water include a slowing of intrauterine growth, increased incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, cardiac defects and increased risk of nervous system defects, according to a toxicity summary by EPA.
After the EPA’s findings came to light, area dairies agreed to limit the nitrate coming off their farms. But groundwater moves slowly, and it may be years before groundwater near Yakima is again safe for consumption — in other words, pregnant women and young children may want to steer clear (pun intended*).
And in the meantime, what in the world are thirsty Yakimites supposed to drink? I imagine the local dairy farms have an idea:
*To clarify: the pun is that dairies are mostly clear of steers.