Elevated Nitrates In The Water In Burlington, Colorado
UPDATE: One year after I published this article Colorado’s state health department fined the small Colorado city of Burlington with a nearly $1-million fine for failing to report high levels of nitrate in the city’s drinking water over a five-year period.
Elevated Nitrates In The Water In Burlington Colorado.
I was traveling US 70, on my way back from Ferguson, Missouri, when I stopped in Burlington, Colorado for some coffee and a bite to eat. As I was walking in the door of the gas station I noticed a sign on the wall warning me that there are nitrates in the water.
After spending some time reading the notice I saw that is stated that nitrates cause methemoglobinemia in infants, a condition that damages the hemoglobin in the blood, causing “blue baby syndrome.” Adults with strong immune systems are not at an immediate risk but babies cannot recover from this type of damage, leaving their blood less able to absorb oxygen, because of the now limited supply of hemoglobin which has been turned to methenoglobin from the interaction with the nitrates.
“What is blue baby syndrome?
Infants younger than 6 months of age are most at risk from high nitrates by ingesting water containing nitrates or formula diluted with nitrate contaminated water. If an infant drinks water or formula made with water that is high in nitrate, a condition called blue baby syndrome (or methemoglobinemia) can develop. Bacteria present in an infant’s stomach can convert nitrate to nitrite (NO2), a chemical that can interfere with the ability of the infant’s blood to carry oxygen. As the condition worsens, the baby’s skin turns a bluish color, particularly around the eyes and mouth. If prompt medical attention is not received, death can result. Infants with illnesses that cause vomiting and diarrhea are at highest risk for blue baby syndrome.”
My immediate concern was that Burlington is a travelers town. I wondered how many people were passing through the area and if they were consuming nitrates because they just so happened to miss the public notice. At the gas station, workers confirmed that their water systems were equipped with filters to get rid of the nitrates, meaning if you pass through, you’re fine to drink the water, but it’s probably not a good idea to give any to your baby, regardless of whether its filtered or not.
Welcome To Burlington
Burlington, itself, is a quiet, Twilight Zone-esque town on the edge of Colorado and Kansas situated on first stretch of road into the plains after you cross over The Rocky Mountains heading east. I’ve stayed in Burlington several times, met a few people who lived there, and talked with them about making sure to stay focused on the subject of the nitrates in the water and working towards learning about what types of clean up options they have. In cases like this, in such a small town, there is not much I can do but try to inspire someone to take up the cause, and act as a watchdog over the situation.
While the day to day travelers are safe, which I applaud the businesses of Burlington for making happen, my concern for the town is the the local swimming pool. When I was in town, in December the baby pool was drained and well protected by a chain link fence. But as the Burlington, Colorado website states the pool is open for business in the summer months, with no warnings about the nitrates in the water.
Nitrates do not easily absorb into the skin, meaning under normal circumstances, swimming in them does not present a hazard to children over six months of age. However, infants are still vulnerable nitrates if they swallow the water. Parents are encouraged, using a flyer circulated by The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to keep their children from ingesting the water.
That seems like a gamble I would not be willing to take with my own children, allowing them to swim even though it seems almost like the denial of a childhood rite of passage to deny babies the right to freely play and experiment with water because they might accidentally ingest some, turn blue and then die; suffering a fate not unlike enduring the side effects of one of Willy Wonka’s hallucinogenic fantasy induced inventions, but in towns with nitrates in the well water, blue baby syndrome is very much a stark reality to contrast the implications any Dahl’s surrealist prose could offer up to placate our fears about our own world.
In all of the research I’ve done into this subject I haven’t found any statement from a public official that can pin point the cause of the nitrates, which often come from fertilizer, but Burlington is a farming town. It seems very unlikely that if they were able to prove that the nitrates were a byproduct of the local agricultural industry that anyone would be quick to admit it.
Troy Bauder, of the Colorado State University, who works on “water quality” stated that,”[nitrates] could be from farms, from golf courses, it could be from your own lawn.” I wondered, after watching the news piece how many golf courses there were in Burlington vs. the amount of farms. Google Earth provided a candid glimpse into the answer to that question. I doubt that Burlington’s nitrate issue is coming from one tiny golf course. But if it is, shame on your sir golf course owner. How dare you?
I’m being facetious, of course, because I’m not a scientist but a lowly man with nothing but a GED and an internet connection, so whet the hell do I know? I’m sure the big brains have figured it all out by now, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand what is happening in my own world. Also, it’s nice to know where I can go to chip a few balls into the nearest water hazard filled with hazardous water.
While the City Administrator for Burlington downplays the risks, proudly claiming he drinks the water himself, we can often look to the actions of more proactive communities to see how seriously they have taken the issue of contaminated water in their own neighborhoods. If the water is harmless why did the city of DeMoines, Iowa build a multi-million dollar water plant in the 1970’s when they recognized the growing possibility of blue baby syndrome from nitrates?
It’s amazing truths that can be stated by a city official speaking without fear of liability.
I imagine that to build the water treatment plant there is probably a slight issue of coming up with several million dollars on command. They are an isolated town on the edge of Colorado in a place most people would call Bum Fucked Egypt if they had to call home to talk about how they just skidded off the highway into a snowbank, which is something that happens quite frequently there, in winter. I can’t imagine that they have the cash lying around to build a water treatment facility.
One issue that has been dodged all of the reports is where, exactly, nitrates come from. I don’t mean, farms, and golf courses, or your front yard. I mean what is being added to those areas to make them rich in nitrates? Is this whole thing just a passive aggressive shot at Round Up? Am I going to dive right in and blame Monsanto? Those seem to be simple and broad enough targets to go after, but taking that road leaves us wondering what types of fertilizers, and chemicals are being used by local farmers, by farm? Is there one farm that is responsible for seeping more nitrates into the ground water than others? It would be interesting to see the local media ask those kinds of questions.
Without any reasonable hope of reducing the levels using a treatment plant, Burlington has taken steps to use water blending, mixing clean and contaminated wells to dilute the nitrate levels, but has not implemented the plan. The sad reality here is that in places where there are smaller populations, in small town America, just don’t get the attention from the government that larger cities do.
In the end, like everything else in this world it comes down to money. And with over a thousand Superfund sites in this country, another couple of thousand sites not on the national priorities list, the cries of Burlington, to the federal government, become nothing more than a voice in the vast crowd of American citizens demanding clean-ups in their neighborhoods. Erin Brockovich’s website reveals those numbers, with a red pin for each complaint, mean that there is little hope that Burlington, Colorado will be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.