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Groundwater Supply Surpasses 'Public Health Limit' for Nitrates, L.A. Region Affected

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Millions drink it, but little know what it is or what it does to you. Now, thanks to a yearlong investigative project by California Watch that broke today, the word is getting out.

"More than two million Californians have been contaminated with nitrates at levels that surpass the public health limit, and that in small towns and rural settings, schools and families often don’t have access to groundwater treatment that would filter it out," states a Watch summary. "Many of the people most affected are in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Los Angeles/Imperial Valley regions, where a legacy of nitrate contamination has taken its toll on water basins."

But what is this chemical?

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"Nitrates are now the most common groundwater contaminant in California and across the country. A byproduct of nitrogen-based farm fertilizer, animal manure, wastewater treatment plants and leaky septic tanks, nitrates leach into the ground and can be expensive to extract," explains Julia Scott in the opening report of the investigation.

They are "colorless and odorless contaminants that can cause health problems," adds Sasha Khokha from KQED, one of the California Watch partners. "Nitrates are linked to blue-baby syndrome, a condition that cuts off oxygen to the organs of fetuses and infants. Some animal studies have also linked nitrates to increased cancer risk, although there's no conclusive evidence in humans."

California Watch says the problem is preventable but taking care of the problem is not a priority for state regulators who are faced with other groundwater pollutants. "We used records to show that regulators chose not to take action against companies and operations that were known to be contributing to the problem. Lawmakers have no plan to cope with this reality, and one goal of this project was to raise an issue that has been missing from the public discussion over California’s future water security."

To check if wells near you are contaminated, use this search tool. A simple check of the Sherman Oaks and Studio City area revealed 10 contaminated wells within 10 miles. How this information affects tap water in Los Angeles is not clearly explained yet, but we anticipate more information to come.

The report comes on the heels of a major New York Time investigation from last December about legal, but possibly unhealthy tap water. More CalWatch reports will be released over the next week, but a good chunk of stories in print, audio and video are already posted at California Watch.

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