Tracing sources of excess nitrates in water

Mark Altabet, UMassD Professor of Oceanography, has developed a new cost-efficient method for identifying sources of excess levels of nitrates in marine and fresh waters, which will aid water quality improvement in impacted areas around the world.

Mark Altabet

While nitrogen is the most abundant element in the air we breathe, too much of it in biological usable forms have negative environmental and human impacts that also diminish economic activity.

Dr. Mark Altabet, Professor and Chair of Estuarine and Ocean Sciences at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology, recently was invited to visit the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria where he introduced a new method to measure the isotopic composition of nitrate in fresh and salt water.  Nitrate isotopic composition is an important means for “fingerprinting”  nitrate sources and identify contributions from sewage or agricultural runoff.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), too much nitrogen and phosphorus in water leads to significant increases in algae and harms water quality and food resources. It’s estimated that billions of dollars are invested to clean up polluted water bodies and millions of dollars are lost by the fishing and shellfish industries annually.

“The new method uses a one-step chemical preparation of a water sample; it saves time and labor, allows for gathering greatly expanded data sets, and is more cost efficient than existing methods,” said Altabet. The new method also uses an off-the-shelf non-toxic chemical, requires relatively small amounts of each sample, and allows a large number of analyses to be performed simultaneously.

Too much nitrate in drinking water has also been shown to impact human health. The EPA states that health of women and children, in particular can be at risk due to elevated nitrate levels. Nitrate levels above the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA have been known to cause “blue baby syndrome,” a fatal blood disorder in infants under 6 months of age.

Nitrate contamination in fresh and coastal waters can stimulate blooms of algae that also produce toxins and co-occurring bacterial growth.  These can cause illness in individuals who drink or come into contact with contaminated water or consume tainted fish or shellfish from these areas.  Eutrophication also results from excess nitrate decreasing the availability of oxygen which fish and other marine animals require for survival.

“Countries around the globe are affected by nitrate contamination,” said Altabet. According to the EPA, nutrient pollution significantly impacts our nation's coastlines, with more than two-thirds of the nation's coastal areas and more than one-third of the nation's estuaries showing impairment from nutrient pollution. “The goal of this tool is to help impacted parts of the United States as well as other countries by identifying the sources of nitrate contamination as a first step toward remediation.”

About Mark Altabet

Mark Altabet is Professor and Chair of the Department of Estuarine and Ocean Sciences at UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology. His research focuses on the global N cycle and its interactions with climate change, the Earth's carbon cycle and control of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, as well as enrichment of water as a result of an increase and nutrients and their impact on the coastal environment. Study sites include the coastal environment as well as the open ocean.

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