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The Nitrate Time Bomb

The popularity of nitrogen-based fertilizers in agriculture for decades has contributed to a vast amount of anthropogenic nitrogen entering the nitrogen cycle. In soil, a significant component of the nitrogen is in its nitrate form, which leaches into waterways. While nitrate is present in water naturally, the extra nitrate can increase the nitrate concentration to above the safe levels for drinking water and, in certain circumstances, contribute to nutrient pollution and the formation of toxic algal blooms.

Research has shown that significant amounts of nitrate is still stored between the soil layer and the aquifers below and will continue to slowly make its way into the water for years to come. Globally, there is estimated to be up to 180 million tons of nitrate stored in this layer.

While efforts have been made to get the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers under control, the presence of stored nitrate means that the effects of its use will have environmental, health and financial consequences for a long time.

Sources of Nitrate in water

Nitrate Source Tracking with Beta Analytic

Besides nitrogen-based fertilizers, other anthropogenic nitrate sources include sewage and animal manure. In the research, management and mitigation of nitrate pollution, being able to differentiate between nitrate sources is a useful tool. Depending on the source, the nitrate found in water will have a different isotopic signature.

ISO 17025-accredited Beta Analytic provides the measurement of δ18O and δ15N of nitrate in water by isotope-ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS). For more information, please contact the lab.


Ascott, M. J., Gooddy, D. C., Wang, L., Stuart, M. E., Lewis, M. A., Ward, R. S. and Binley, A. M. 2017. Nature Communications. 8. pp 1-7.

Harrabin, R. 2017. Scale of ‘nitrate timebomb’ revealed. BBC. (Accessed August 2018).

This entry was posted on Monday, December 3rd, 2018 and is filed under Nitrate Test, Source Tracking in water .