Area residents can have their well-water tested for nitrates -- for free -- at the University of Delaware's 29th annual Coast Day, set for Sunday, October 2, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Hugh R. Sharp campus in Lewes. The award-winning festival, featuring research demonstrations, ship tours, a crab cake cook-off, and dozens of other activities, is sponsored by the UD College of Marine Studies and the Delaware Sea Grant College Program.
Nitrate is a soluble form of nitrogen that appears at low concentrations in most surface waters as a result of natural biological processes. Higher concentrations in groundwater are usually derived from agricultural and/or sewage disposal practices.
"Nitrate contamination of drinking water is especially a problem in coastal areas because the combination of a shallow water table and sandy soils allows nitrate contamination at the surface to easily infiltrate into the groundwater," says Joseph Scudlark, the UD scientist who will conduct the water testing.
Comprehensive surveys in Sussex County indicate that nearly one out of every three wells sampled exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum concentration guidelines for nitrate, which is 10 parts per million. Nitrate in groundwater also contributes to excess nutrient inputs to coastal waters such as Delaware's Inland Bays, which has been linked to fish kills and other ecological problems.
Without special laboratory testing, nitrate in water is undetectable because it is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. At low levels, nitrate poses no known hazard to consumers. But high levels have been shown to cause "blue baby disease," a disorder of infants and young children caused by inadequate oxygenation of the blood. High nitrate levels are often indicative of other forms of contamination and have recently been linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer.
To have your drinking water tested at Coast Day, bring a sample with you in a small, clean (preferably glass) bottle. The sample should be drawn from the cold-water faucet. Let the faucet run for a few minutes, thoroughly rinse the bottle, then fill it with water, and immediately refrigerate it. For the results to be accurate, the sample should be freshly drawn and remain cold until tested.
Samples should be dropped off in Room 125B Cannon Lab. Results will be available within several hours, or they can be mailed directly to your home. Should a sample's nitrate level exceed the recommended maximum concentration, instructions will be provided on where to go for further assistance. For more information on the water testing, contact Scudlark at (302) 645-4300.
Admission to this educational and fun-filled event is free; parking is $2. For more information, contact the Marine Public Education Office at (302) 831-8083, or visit the Coast Day Web site at www.ocean.udel.edu/CoastDay.