Quick Hit: Nebraska’s water is laced with nitrate. It’s likely harming our kids

Recent studies have found that areas with elevated nitrate levels also have elevated levels of lymphoma, leukemia and brain cancers in children.

What happened

The water many Nebraskans drink, shower with and take for granted is high in nitrate. And, after decades of inaction, the problem is growing worse. The statewide median nitrate level in our groundwater has doubled since 1978.

Fifty-nine different community water supplies have violated the EPA’s safe drinking water limit on nitrate in the past dozen years. Many residents, as well as rural Nebraskans who drink from largely unregulated private wells, may be unknowingly drinking and bathing in water that is dangerously high in nitrate.

The problem, experts say, stems chiefly from Nebraska’s biggest cash crop, corn, and the nitrogen fertilizer we apply to it to make it thrive. Runoff from feedlots and the fertilizer we apply on golf courses and lawns also leach nitrate into our water supply, though in much smaller amounts.

Despite the evidence that Nebraska’s nitrate problem is growing and spreading through regions of the state, state and local governments have never fined or stopped someone who is using excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, NRD leaders say.


Nebraska wells

State and local governments test Nebraska wells — identified by the gray dots on the map below — in part because we have long known water quality is a problem.

The 6000-some red dots are wells that, when last tested, had a higher nitrate level than the EPA drinking water standard.

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Drag and zoom the map to explore. Source: Flatwater Free Press analysis of the Nebraska Groundwater Quality Clearinghouse data

Why it matters

In a word, cancer.

Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania.
Recent University of Nebraska Medical Center studies have found that areas that have elevated nitrate levels also have elevated levels of lymphoma, leukemia and brain cancer rates in children.

High nitrate levels are closely linked to colorectal cancer, connected to thyroid disease and associated with birth defects, premature labor and miscarriages.

The nitrate problem is also costing Nebraska taxpayers serious amounts of cash to clean up when it gets out of control in a Nebraska town. Hastings, for example, had to spend $15 million on a reverse osmosis treatment system.

A link between nitrate and cancer?

Slide the arrows right or left to compare Nebraska counties with high nitrate levels in groundwater to counties with high pediatric brain and central nervous system cancer rates. UNMC research has found a geographic correlation between the two.

Source: Geospatial Distribution of Age-Adjusted Incidence of the Three Major Types of Pediatric Cancers and Waterborne Agrichemicals in Nebraska, Ouattara et al., 2022

Full story

Read FFP reporter Yanqi Xu’s first story in our investigative project, Our Dirty Water.

By Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu (pronounced yen-chee shu) most recently covered courts and law for NC Policy Watch in North Carolina, focusing on criminal justice reform, housing justice and redistricting. Prior to that, she was part of a team at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that developed the Public Accountability Project, a newsroom search tool that hosts more than 1 billion public records in one place. She hails from China, where she first developed an interest in telling stories that resonate with people, no matter where they are.