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Nitrate in Drinking Water, 2003-2017: Kansas

Between 2003 and 2017, tests detected elevated levels of nitrate (3 milligrams per liter, or mg/L) in the tap water supplies of 358 towns and cities in Kansas, serving approximately 1.2 million people.

Contamination is getting worse in 203 of those community water systems1 – 57 percent, serving approximately 940,000 people. Larger towns and cities tend to depend on surface water for drinking, whereas smaller, often rural communities depend on groundwater. During the period studied, just over 500,000 residents of 12 larger Kansas towns and cities that rely on surface water faced increased contamination. But 191 mostly small, rural communities, serving approximately 436,000 people, that depend on groundwater also saw nitrate contamination increase.

Kansas Communities With Increases in Nitrate Contamination, 2003 to 2017
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Source: EWG, from Kansas Department of Health and Environment data.

Average nitrate contamination across these communities jumped by 17 percent between 2003 and 2017. In 2003, average contamination was 4.21 mg/L. By 2009, average contamination had increased to 4.63 mg/L and continued climbing to 4.80 mg/L in 2017.

Average Nitrate Levels in Kansas Communities Where Contamination Rose, 2003 to 2017

Source: EWG, from Kansas Department of Health and Environment data.

Health Hazards of Nitrate

Nitrate is a primary chemical component of fertilizer and manure that can run off farm fields and seep into drinking water supplies. Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the legal limit for nitrate, measured as nitrogen, in drinking water is 10 mg/L. This limit was set in 1962 to guard against so-called blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that starves infants of oxygen if they ingest too much nitrate.

But more recent studies show strong evidence of an increased risk of colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube birth defects at levels at 5 mg/L or even lower. In Kansas, drinking water was getting worse in 147 communities, serving approximately 236,000 people, that already had tested at or above 5 mg/L at least once during the period studied.

Drinking water for approximately 72,000 of those people in 43 communities had already tested at or above the legal limit at least once and had increasing nitrate levels during the period studied. Of the 99 communities where nitrate exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limit at least once, 19 systems, serving approximately 11,000 people, tested at or above the legal limit in 2017.

People who want to know the level of nitrate in their community’s water system can visit the Kansas page of EWG’s Tap Water Database.

Who Is Affected?

Contamination was more likely to get worse in smaller communities between 2003 and 2017. Eighty-eight percent of systems with worsening nitrate contamination served 3,300 or fewer people. For our analysis, systems were put into the EPA-designated size categories based on how many water customers they serve.

Number and Percent of Systems With Increasing Nitrate Levels, by System Size, 2003 to 2017

System size System count Percent of systems
Very small (<501) 101 50%
Small (501-3,300) 78 38%
Medium (3,301-10,000) 13 6%
Large (10,001-100,000) 9 4%
Very large (>100,000) 2 1%

Source: EWG, from Kansas Department of Health and Environment data.

Nitrate contamination was also more likely to get worse for people living in rural areas. In Kansas, 79 percent of communities with growing nitrate levels were rural, whereas 21 percent were urban, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.


1 Community water systems are public water supplies that serve residents in cities and towns year-round.

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