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Dangerous Nitrate Levels Found in Drinking-Water Wells

Drinking water consumed by about 10,000 residents of El Rio and Nyeland Acres contains as much as three times the acceptable levels of nitrates, county officials said Monday.

Ventura County Supervisor Susan K. Lacey described the situation in the areas north of Oxnard as a health-threatening emergency. She said she will ask the Board of Supervisors today to provide $25,000 to finance a study of how the problem can be solved.

Tests conducted last month in wells serving the area showed nitrate levels as high as 123 parts per million, according to Robert Gallagher, manager of the resources section of the County Environmental Health Department.

Gallagher said 45 p.p.m. is the maximum acceptable contaminant level set by the state Department of Health Services. “I would recommend that anyone living in that area should consult their doctor before using the water,” Gallagher added.

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Excessive nitrates has “definitely been established” as being harmful to infants 6 months and younger because it reduces their blood’s ability to carry oxygen, Gallagher said. He said there is no conclusive evidence of a danger to older children or adults, but that some researchers suspect a link between high levels of the substance and cancer and birth defects.

“To my knowledge, however, nobody has shown that cancer or birth defects are caused by excessive nitrate levels,” he said. “There is some suspicion that they’re loosely related.”.

Lacey noted that some studies also indicate that fetuses and children up to 2 years old may be harmed by nitrite, which is formed in the human body by excessive nitrate levels.

Lacey hosted a meeting last week attended by state and county water and health officials along with representatives of a newly formed council of mutual water companies supplying well water to El Rio and Nyeland Acres. Water from eight of the companies’ wells is suspected of containing excessive nitrates.

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Aides to Lacey and Assemblyman Jack O’Connell (D-Carpinteria), whose district includes the affected area, met with state water and health officials in Sacramento on Monday in an attempt to gain state support for an effort to remove the danger.

Cheryl Collart, an administrative aide to Lacey, said one solution being considered is merging the small water companies so they can better afford to purify their water.

Gallagher said excessive nitrates, compounds of nitric acid, have been found in El Rio and Nyeland Acres water since at least the mid-1970s. Possible sources of the problem include fertilizer used by farmers, septic tanks and manure from a dairy that formerly was located there.

Lacey said the impurities may date back to the 1950s. “They seem to come and go, in peaks and valleys,” she said. “Whatever the cause, we’re mainly interested in solving the problem, not blaming anybody.”

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Fred Gientke, general manager of the United Water Conservation District, whose water is not among that reported to have excessive nitrate levels, said his district would be willing to provide water to the affected area temporarily while a permanent solution is being worked out.

United, which serves parts of Oxnard and Port Hueneme, recently started supplying water to Rio del Valle Junior High School in El Rio after school officials expressed fear that the health of students might be adversely affected by the high nitrate levels, Gientke said.


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