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Water Too Dangerous to Drink: What Life's Like in California's Farming Communities

State officials know the primary sources of contamination, just how extensive it is and who's shouldering the burden. But will anything be done?

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The number of people exposed will likely grow. It can take decades for nitrates to travel from the soil surface to ground water.

“We know we can’t stop all sources tomorrow and that there will be a time lag until we get the situation under control,” said Thomas Harter, a ground water hydrologist who led the UC Davis study. “We will definitely see an increase in nitrate contamination over the next 10 or 20 years.”

Hidden Hazards

Jessica Sanchez fills a glass from the tap and holds it up to the light. The water appears cloudy, almost opaque, as particles swirl around. After a few minutes, the particles settle, and the water looks normal.

That’s precisely the trouble, water activists say. You can’t see or taste nitrates. “If you have sulfur or manganese in your water, it looks brown and gross and you quit drinking it before it poisons you,” said Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst with  Clean Water Action. “But with nitrates, you don’t.”

Nitrates become toxic when bacteria in saliva and the gut convert them to nitrites, which in turn convert hemoglobin into methemoglobin, which can’t deliver oxygen to tissues. Babies are vulnerable in part because their immature stomachs harbor abundant nitrite-producing bacteria.

Affected infants have trouble breathing and develop cyanosis, a blue-gray or purple tint to their skin, giving methemoglobinemia its common name, blue baby syndrome. Left untreated, babies develop brain damage, and eventually suffocate. Studies have linked high nitrate exposures in adults with miscarriage, digestive disorders, thyroid damage and cancer.

Health experts worry that people don’t know about the risks and that doctors may not consider nitrate exposure in their diagnoses.

Dr. Mark Miller used to treat patients in Chico, in the northern Central Valley, where some wells had nitrate levels 10 to 15 times higher than the federal standard. “But there was no awareness among clinicians and no effort from public health authorities to check wells and inform people about this hazard,” said Miller, director of the state’s Children’s Environmental Health Program and head of the University of California, San Francisco Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.

Doctors might see a newborn that was failing to thrive or had cyanosis and not even think to ask about nitrates, Miller said.

The majority of the at-risk residents get their water from public systems, many of which rely on a single well. East Orosi has two public wells and both regularly have unsafe nitrate levels. Managers of the town’s volunteer water board – the East Orosi Community Services District – did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sanchez went to Orosi High School, where administrators posted signs warning students not to drink the water. School officials dug a new well, only to find nitrates there, too.

For years, Dias, Sanchez’s mother, had to buy bottled water for her kids to take to school, on top of the water she bought for her home.

Dias makes $7.50 an hour picking fruit, and pays $60 a month for her tap water and up to $75 a month to fill jugs with water from a vending machine. That’s nearly five times more than the average San Franciscan, who earns about $45,000 a year and pays just $28 a month for some of the nation’s best tap water, drawn from Sierra Nevada snowmelt.

“If you looked at people’s water rates, you’d think we were rich,” said Susana De Anda, co-founder of the Visalia-based nonprofit  Community Water Center. “The reality is that we’re making sacrifices just to have safe drinking water in the home.”

 
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