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Tap Water

Group says unsafe U.S. water
causing 'blue baby syndrome'

February 22, 1996
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Eugena Halsey

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An environmental group says federal drinking water standards are too loose to protect newborns from a chemical that may cause something called "blue baby syndrome."

Blue baby syndrome is a rare but sometimes fatal disease that occurs primarily during the first four months of life. Symptoms include a blue discoloration of the lips, nose, and ears. Other symptoms include crying, vomiting and diarrhea.


It can be caused by a chemical called nitrate sometimes found at unsafe levels in tap water that is used to mix powdered formula.

Nitrate is widely used in fertilizer applied to crops in the corn belt, Texas, and California, and it can run off into water supplies.

A research group called the Environmental Working Group says federal standards for nitrate in drinking water should be tougher. "We don't want to become a nation of bottled water, and we are rapidly becoming that," says Ken Cook of EWG.

The group says the U.S. standard for nitrate should be twice as protective as it is now. That would put it in line with Germany, Denmark, and South Africa.


But spokesmen for the Environmental Protection Agency and the nation's water systems say the current standard is sufficient to protect infants. "The standard is really not in question, and to cast aspersions on it is misleading," says Jack Sullivan with the American Water Works Association.

Sullivan agrees that more steps are needed to prevent pollution by farmers but says there is no widespread public health threat.

The Environmental Working Group says that in 1994, about 500,000 people, many of them in the Midwest, drank tap water from systems that exceeded the federal standard for nitrate.

Water systems experts say when violations occur, they notify the public so pregnant women and infants will switch to bottled water. They say nitrate contamination is generally a bigger problem in drinking water from private wells.


Pediatricians say parents who are worried should check with their local water company or get their water tested. "If parents have kids under a year of age and live in a part of the country where the water system has been contaminated and is at risk, then they ought to consider use of bottled water," says Dr. Jerome Paulson with the George Washington University Medical Center.

Boiling tap water does not eliminate the problem because nitrate is a chemical, not a form of bacteria.

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