Area residents can have their well-water tested for nitrates -- for free -- at the University of Delaware's 24th annual Coast Day, set for Sunday, October 1, at the Lewes campus. The award-winning festival, featuring research demonstrations, ship tours, a crab cake cook-off, and dozens of other activities, is sponsored by the UD Sea Grant College Program and the College of Marine Studies.
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 aquifer and sandy soils allows nitrate at the surface to rapidly percolate down to the water table," says Joseph Scudlark, the UD scientist who will conduct the water testing.
A recent survey estimated that one-quarter of the wells sampled in Sussex County, Delaware, exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum concentration guidelines for nitrate, which is 10 parts per million. Nitrate in groundwater also has been identified as a source of contamination for coastal waters such as Delaware's Inland Bays, where excess nutrient inputs have been linked to fish kills and other 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 linked to 'blue baby disease,' a disorder of infants and young children caused by inadequate oxygenation of the blood.
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; if possible, from a location closest to the wellhead, such as an outside garden spigot. Let the faucet run for a few minutes, and then rinse the bottle three times with water. After the third rinse, fill the bottle with water and immediately refrigerate it. For the results to be accurate, the sample should remain refrigerated until tested, and you are urged to keep the sample on ice during the trip to Coast Day.
Samples should be dropped off in Room 125 Cannon. Results will be available within several hours, or they will be mailed within a week after Coast Day. 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.
Coast Day is Sunday, October 1, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the UD Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. Admission is free; parking is $2. For more information, contact the Marine Communications Office at (302) 831-8083, or visit this Web site: www.ocean.udel.edu.