Nitrate and Nitrite – From Fertilizer to Pollutant

Last updated: 17. September 2018

valid on field nitrate nitrite

EU Complaint: Nitrate in groundwater

Germany has had a problem with the nitrate content of groundwater for years. As early as April 2016, the EU Commission announced a complaint, and today, on 7 November 2016, they finally fulfilled their promise.

How does nitrate get into groundwater?

In German agriculture, more artificial fertilizer and manure is applied than the soil can cope with. Ideally, exactly as much fertiliser as the plants can absorb is used. Obviously this quantity is exceeded in Germany, however.

The result: the legal limit is being exceeded in more and more places. From the point of view of the EU Commission, the federal and state governments have done too little to change this. This should now be a thing of the past.

What are the consequences of nitrate on the human body?

Nitrates are nitrogen compounds that are excreted quickly by the body. Nevertheless, nitrates are harmful substances that pose a health hazard to humans, especially infants, as they are converted to nitrite in the body. The consequences can be:

  • Nitrites may contain carcinogenic substances
  • You obstruct iodine uptake
  • Nitrite anions can convert blood cells, hemoglobin, to methaemoglobin, limiting oxygen uptake, and nitrite deposits hinder blood flow

Which foodstuffs are particularly affected?

Most nitrate is found in green vegetables like lettuce:

  • Rocket salad
  • Spinage
  • cabbage
  • Beetroot
  • Red Radish
  • Radish

What are the expected consequences of the EU lawsuit?

Germany is now being forced to act. Limit values will be lowered, which will certainly affect German agriculture.

In the future, less fertilisation will be allowed, but the question remains as to how much the economic viability of farms can be maintained.

In addition, the problem of excess manure must be solved. Especially livestock farming produces much more manure than can be used as fertilizer.

The additional costs may be passed on to consumers. However, it should be worth a few more euros to all of us to keep the groundwater clean. Or restore it.


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