Safe Drinking Water

Arsenic in Drinking Water

What is arsenic? 

Arsenic in ground water is largely the result of minerals dissolving naturally from weathered rocks and soils, but contamination can also be a result of manufacturing processes and some pesticide use.

Is there arsenic in Bernalillo County's water?

Drinking water from both private and public water supplies in the Bernalillo County area may contain some levels of arsenic. Depending on private or public well depths and locations, arsenic levels can range from non-detectable to over 50 ppb. For further information about arsenic, private well owners can call the Bernalillo County Office of Environmental Health at 314-0310; City of Albuquerque water users can call 857-8260.

What are some of the health effects of arsenic exposure?

Studies have shown that long-term exposure to elevated concentrations of arsenic in drinking water can lead to cancerous and non-cancerous health effects. Cancerous effects include cancers of the skin, bladder, lung, and prostate. Non-cancerous health effects include effects on the skin, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system among others. Some health effects and consequences of arsenic ingestion remain unclear and should be examined more thoroughly.

How will the new arsenic level affect our community?

To protect human health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently reduced the standard for the amount of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. All public water systems are mandated to comply with federal regulations. A public (community) water system is a system that serves 15 locations or 25 residents year-round. The City of Albuquerque estimates that there will be a significant cost associated with the new standard, which all users of the City of Albuquerque water supply will bear.

If you are a private well owner, we recommend that you test your well on an annual basis for contaminants. The BCOEH can refer you to a certified testing laboratory. If you use a private water supply, you can purchase a drinking water treatment system. Please note that most drinking water treatment systems only remove a limited number of contaminants, so be sure to thoroughly investigate a treatment unit before making a purchasing decision.


Why are elevated nitrates a concern in drinking water?

The Environmental Protection Agency has set a primary standard for nitrates at 10 mg/L. Elevated nitrates in drinking water are mostly of concern to infants under six months, pregnant women, and women who are breast-feeding. The problem that nitrates creates is an illness called methemoglobinemia or "blue baby syndrome." Blue baby syndrome is caused when bacteria in the intestines cause nitrates to form nitrites. The nitrites react with the baby’s hemoglobin and change it into methemoglobin. In this form, the blood can not carry the much-needed oxygen to the baby’s cells. Symptoms of blue baby syndrome are a bluish color to skin, hands, feet and nails. The infant may have trouble breathing and in extreme cases, the infant may suffocate.

How do nitrates get into the groundwater?

Nitrates can occur in soil naturally due to certain geologic formations. Other sources are from septic tanks, animal feed lots and manure storage facilities. When more nitrates occur in the soil than the plants can use, it can percolate into the groundwater.

How to remove nitrates from drinking water?

  • If elevated nitrates are suspected from a certain source, eliminate the source. Improper septic system construction can be modified. Manure storage should be kept at least 100 feet and down gradient from well, etc.
  • Water treatment systems such as reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and distillation units are effective at removing nitrates.
  • Do not boil water to reduce nitrates, boiling will concentrate the amount already in the water.

If elevated nitrates are suspected

  • Call Bernalillo County Office of Environmental Health to schedule an appointment to get your well water tested
  • Once elevated nitrates are confirmed in your water, discontinue consumption and find alternate source of drinking water until the problem has been fixed
  • Have your water tested regularly
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