For the past several weeks, I have been keeping up with a story that is just starting to develop in the Midwest. Most attention is currently focused on the Mississippi River; massive floods, which experts are claiming to be all-time record breaking, have prompted the U.S. government to blast open levees in Missouri in order to alleviate swelling pressure. The Mississippi River has always been a threat to the security of the valleys through which it runs; at an astounding 2,348 miles long, the Mississippi River is the largest river system in the United States. Its drainage area, covering about 40 percent of the country, originates in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and flows slowly southward passing through 31 states. Also, it should be noted that most of the states along the Mississippi River are commonly referred to as farm country. Nearly one million acres of prime farmland is at risk of being destroyed. More importantly however, the fertilizer that these farms have loaded onto their property, just in time for the growing season to resume, is now being carried off downstream.
Scientists have cautioned that fertilizer runoff from the flooded farms along the Mississippi could cause more problems than the flooding itself can impose. As the components of fertilizer move downstream – notably the two primary components, nitrogen and phosphorous – contain nourishing qualities, thereby intensifying the growth of microbes found in water; which in turn eat away at oxygen producing plants. Subsequently, the water is depleted of oxygen and many ecosystems are disturbed. However, and even more significantly, nitrogen and phosphorous levels in drinking water increase to harmful levels. In particular, elevated levels of nitrate, a derivative of nitrogen, are known to cause “gastrointestinal irritation, dizziness, severe abdominal pain coupled with vomiting, bloody diarrhea, physical weakness and/or convulsions, collapse and possible coma. Small, repeated oral doses and chronic exposure to nitrates have been known to cause depression, headache, weakness and mental impairment (Livestrong 2010).”
Much of the Midwest gets its water from rivers that branch off of the Mississippi River. With this in mind, scientists have been closely monitoring whether the floodwaters indicate elevated levels of nitrate. Currently, water-treatment plants filter out nitrate to keep within government limits, but John Downing, a professor at Iowa State University specializing in inland-water issues urges that “the faster the water moves across the land, the more sediment [consisting of] nitrate and other pollutants it picks up.” This in turn, will make it more difficult to filter out toxic substances from the drinking water.
Chemistry managers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been closely monitoring nitrate levels of water filtered in the city. I am happy to report that as of right now, cities along the river do not appear to have elevated levels of nitrate in their water supply. However, with the river still a few weeks away from cresting in the delta, monitoring should be increased substantially. If necessary, a temporary drinking water ban should be put in place for those people — especially pregnant women and infants — who are more susceptible to nitrate poisoning. It is usually better to be overly cautious than not safe enough, especially when it comes to the welfare of citizens.