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The primary concern over nitrate in ground water is the occurrence of a disease called methemoglobinemia in human infants who drink water containing the nitrate ion. Nitrate contaminated water leads to lack of oxygen in the blood, causing oxygen starvation of the brain and, in some severe cases, death. Infant farm animals, particularly piglets, are similarly affected by nitrate.
Two areas exist in Nebraska where nitrate contamination of ground water is becoming a serious problem. These problem areas are in Holt County and the Central Platte region. Most nitrate contamination is related to excessive application of commercial fertilizer on irrigated cropland with sandy topsoil and a shallow ground water table. Excess irrigation water dissolves the highly soluble nitrate ion, which results from the fertilizer, and the solution moves down to the ground water table.
Although several treatment processes to remove nitrate, including reverse osmosis, electrodialysis, and ion exchange, have been studied, none has proven economically feasible to use on a large scale. Instead, some communities with nitrate contaminated wells are replacing contaminated wells with new wells pumping non-contaminated water. On a smaller scale, some rural people with contaminated wells are using small home distillation units to provide nitrate-free water.