Nelson Issue Brief: Nitrate contamination in drinking water and groundwater

Water Quality and Rural Lives

Contact the authors

Angel Polanco, Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de la Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán,

Kata Beilin, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, UW-Madison,

Nutrients used in industrial agriculture transform landscapes and affect rural livelihoods worldwide. We focus on people’s understanding of the pollution of water by nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture. Public awareness and response are a crucial part of understanding any public health crisis.

Parts of the Mexican state of Yucatan are classified as extremely vulnerable to aquifer contamination due to bedrock with rapid groundwater flow, in which contaminants quickly move into groundwater wells. As in Wisconsin, a large part of the rural population gets its water from groundwater wells.

Yucatan lacks the infrastructure for large-scale sanitary engineering and providing safe drinking water. Analysis of well water found concentrations of nitrates in Yucatan’s agricultural zone that are far above levels allowed by national and international norms. Average concentrations were at 102 ppm and peak concentrations of 141 ppm, over 10 times the U.S. EPA’s limit of 10 ppm.

People swimming in an underground cenote
Underground cenote in Yucatan. Photo via Creative Commons

This high concentration suggests strong negative repercussions for the public health and safety of the ethnically Mayan agricultural regions of Yucatan, where the rates of cancer, congenital deformities, and neural deficiencies are high.

Mayan activists have focused political attention on the link between agricultural practices and human health. Alliances have formed of scientists, international foundations, and Mayan leaders who denounce the use of chemical fertilizers. This has led in turn to interest in reviving ancient Mayan sustainable agricultural practices such as milpa (cyclical fallowing through forest regeneration).

Water quality concerns also lead to a focus on protecting cenotes — groundwater-fed lakes beneath sinkholes in a karst landscape that are sites of deep spiritual significance and recreation. Water quality concerns reach every aspect of life in rural Yucatan and water quality is inseparable from rural life and health.

Learn more about nitrate contamination