Home HealthTopics Health Centers Reference Library Research
Join us on Facebook Join us on Facebook Share on Facebook
Print this pageEMail this page

Children's Health

New Baby? Watch for Nitrate Advisories

Have you wondered why nitrates are dangerous for babies but no one else??  It's all about maturity. Of the digestive tract, that is.

Nitrates cause problems because they can be converted into nitrites. Nitrites can convert good old hemoglobin, which carries oxygen via the blood throughout your body, into methemoglobin, which can't carry oxygen. That's an obvious problem -- with a weakened ability to spread oxygen, the condition (called "methemoglobinemia," or blue baby syndrome) could cause illness or death, if not diagnosed promptly. And infants younger than about 4 to 6 months have a triple whammy against them in the fight against methemoglobinemia.

First, adults are lucky enough to have lots of an enzyme called "NADH-dependent methemoglobin reductase" that continually converts methemoglobin back into hemoglobin. In infants, that enzyme has only about half the activity as it does in adults.

Infants are also at higher risk because the pH in a baby's intestines is normally higher than what you'd find in older children and adults. That higher pH allows more nitrate to be converted into nitrite in the first place.

Finally, much of the hemoglobin in infants is a type called "fetal hemoglobin," which nitrates find much easier to convert into methemoglobin than the type found in older children and adults.

If you feed your baby formula mixed with tap water from a community water system, be alert for any warnings about high nitrate levels in your area. And if you use well water, be sure to test the water for nitrates before giving it to your infant: A 1994 study conducted in nine states from Illinois to Nebraska found that 13.4 percent of wells had high nitrate levels after a period of severe flooding. Water is often contaminated in the springtime when farmers and homeowners fertilize their lawns, and rain washes excess nitrates into watersheds, carrying them into drinking water supplies.

Unfortunately, nitrate can't be easily filtered or boiled out of water -- in fact, boiling water could concentrate nitrates instead of diluting them.

If you breast feed, rest assured that little if any nitrate gets into your breast milk unless you're consuming extremely high levels of nitrate. Another option is to use already-diluted liquid formula, or to use bottled water to dilute powdered or concentrated liquid formula.

This article originally appeared in Chow Line (6/11/06), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2009.

For more information:

Go to the Children's Health health topic, where you can:

Last Reviewed: Apr 03, 2009

Julie  Kennel, PhD, RD, CSSD, LD Julie Kennel, PhD, RD, CSSD, LD
Director of Human Nutrition Dietetic Internship
College of Education and Human Ecology
The Ohio State University