In the community

Water at Extension complex deemed safe

High levels of nitrate and arsenic that were detected in groundwater from a newly dug well at the OSU Extension Office for Malheur County have since been treated.

In February, the state issued a “do not use” notice after a water test at the office located at 525 Onion Ave. in Ontario showed nitrate levels at 16 milligrams per liter, exceeding safe levels of 10 milligrams per liter. Meanwhile, readings for arsenic were at 0.0284. The state’s safe drinking water standard for arsenic is 0.010 milligrams per liter.

The water system, which serves the staff of a dozen people, was dug last year, according to Stuart Reitz, director of Oregon State University’s Malheur Experiment Station.

Nitrate naturally occurs in air, water and soil and arsenic can dissolve and be carried to underground aquifers as water flows through rock formations. Jonathan Modie, lead communications officer with the Oregon Health Authority, said it is widely known that the area has high nitrate and arsenic levels.

Reitz said nitrates in well water are not unusual in farming areas such as Malheur County. Nitrates are used as fertilizer for crops such as potatoes and onions. He said he expected the water test would show high levels. 

Nonetheless, Reitz said that when the campus got the high readings, he contacted the state, given that OSU is a public entity. He said the campus retained a company for a “reverse-osmosis” treatment, which essentially strains the contaminated water to clear out the nitrates and arsenic. 

High levels of nitrate can cause respiratory infections and “blue baby syndrome,” which decreases the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, especially in infants drinking baby formula mixed with water contaminated with nitrates, according to state health authority data. Long-term consumption of water laced with high levels of arsenic can increase the risk of cancer and other health problems to the skin, circulatory and nervous system, state information notes.

According to Modie, after the “reverse osmosis” treatment at the OSU station, a nitrate sample collected from the well showed a result of “non-detect “on March 20. He said officials at the Extension Service also shared a “non-detect” result from the lab for an arsenic sample. Modie said the arsenic standard does not apply to water systems the size of OSU’s.

Reitz added that due to the expected high levels of nitrates and arsenic in the water system, OSU supplies staff with bottled drinking water. He said the well water is used for other needs at the office.

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