Jesse Bell, Ph.D. and director of the Claire M. Hubbard Professor of Water, Climate and Health Program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, updated members of the Central Platte NRD Thursday on ongoing health and water quality research that UNMC is conducting in the region.
Bell’s presentation concerned the effects of water quality on human health, including nitrates, atrazine and other possible contaminants.
He told the CPNRD board that Nebraska has one of the highest rates of pediatric cancer in the country.
“It’s a cancer that happens to children,” Bell said. “We (Nebraska) have one of the highest rates of pediatric cancer in the United States.”
He said there is a variety of different reasons for that high rate of pediatric cancer, including water quality issues.
“We’re trying to understand that better to make sure that we can understand how potentially some of our challenges with water quality in the state are being related back to,” Bell said.
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When defining water quality, he said, it is basically “the drinkable water that we consume and the potential contaminants that are in the water, such as nitrates, atrazine and other potential contaminants.
But, Bell said, there are other sources of contaminants in the water, such as natural occurring contaminants like uranium and arsenic.
Bell stressed to the board that they still are looking at causes for Nebraska’s high pediatric cancer rate. While water-borne contaminants are a possible source, he said water quality is just one of the possible sources for pediatric cancer.
Bell said Nebraska communities, especially smaller communities, pay millions annually to fight dangerous levels of nitrates and other contaminants in the water supplies.
He said nitrates in drinking water can come from many sources, such as nitrogen fertilizers, and animal and human waste. The greatest exposures of nitrate pollution in drinking water is in agricultural areas and private wells. Unlike municipal drinking water systems, private wells are not regulated for contaminants and many go untested for water quality issues. Uncapped wells that have been abandoned are also a source of water contamination.
The Central Platte NRD regularly tests water in the district for contaminants, such nitrates. The Central Platte NRD has more than 1 million certified irrigation acres in the district.
In 1987, Central Platte NRD’s Groundwater Quality Management Program was the first in the Central Platte Valley to address widespread high groundwater nitrate problems.
During the last 34 years, nitrate levels in the groundwater and vadose zones have been reduced using a long-term management approach. Until the program was adopted, nitrate levels in some areas had increased to 19 parts per million. The current average is down to 13.3 ppm, however, there are high nitrate areas in the district that require monitoring.
In 2016, parts of southern Hall and northern Hamilton counties, south of the Platte River, were transferred from a Phase I to a Phase II Groundwater Management Area due to increasing nitrate levels.
Management Plan Phases are:
n Phase I – between 0 & 7.5 ppm
n Phase II – between 7.6 & 15 ppm
n Phase III – 15.1 ppm or higher
n Phase IV – Areas where nitrate levels are not declining at an acceptable rate
Bell said regulatory limits of nitrate in drinking water are set for infant development of methemoglobinemia.
Methemoglobinemia (MetHb) is a blood disorder in which an abnormal amount of methemoglobin is produced. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells (RBCs) that carries and distributes oxygen to the body. Methemoglobin is a form of hemoglobin.
With methemoglobinemia, the hemoglobin can carry oxygen, but is not able to release it effectively to body tissues.
MetHb condition can be passed down through families (inherited or congenital) or caused by exposure to certain medicines, chemicals or foods (acquired).
Bell said numerous scientific studies have looked at the relationship of nitrate in drinking water on human health.
He said high concentration of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to adverse health outcomes, such as methemoglobinemia, preterm birth issues, birth defects, and pediatric and adult cancers.
The most vulnerable populations, according to Bell, includes pregnant women and their fetuses, young infants, children, people with oxygen transport or delivery conditions, such as anemia, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, sepsis and presence of other structural hemoglobin variants.
Another vulnerable population includes people with high nitrates in their well water. Also, diet can play a role.
In recent years, improvements in agricultural technology, such as precision agriculture, has allowed farmers to target fertilizer and chemical applications to areas of need in their fields, instead of generally applying these resources.
“There’s been a lot of improvements with agriculture, but there’s still a lot of historical practices that have led to some of the issues that we’re facing,” Bell said. “We still have a lot of issues that we have to deal with because we do have areas of higher concerns in Nebraska, associated with water quality. We also have areas of higher concern associated with things like pediatric cancer. We have found that some of those overlap with each other. That’s one of our concerns.”
He said using science to determine how and what causes their problems is a vital health issue. Families who have to deal with cancer or other diseases can face unexpected costs, such as moving to a community that can provide medical treatment, the financial burden to care of a family member with the disease, and higher rates of bankruptcy. Medical expenses are one of the leading cause of bankruptcy.
“We do have water quality challenges in Nebraska,” Bell said, “and those water quality challenges can be related back to human health. We want to make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to potentially protect children and others that are a little bit more susceptible to some of those water quality issues.”
The board approved a $20,000 grant that was submitted by the Cairo Community Foundation.
The grant will go to construct a structure at the North Ball Field that would double the number of bathroom stalls, enhance the field’s appearance and improve sanitary conditions for attendees.
According to the Cairo Community Foundation, in asking for the grant, they told CPNRD, “The ball field is no longer a ball field but a home base for high school sports, an outdoor event center for example the Junk Jaunt and a valued addition to the continued economic growth for the Cairo Community.”
The grant application had requested the maximum $40,000 available through the Urban Conservation Program. The program was implemented in 2019 to assist cities, villages and counties with a range of conservation recreational opportunities.