Española residents didn’t know about drinking water contamination for months. Thursday city officials issued a warning about high levels of nitrates in the city’s water that could be harmful to children and pregnant women and possibly fatal for infants.
Public Health New Mexico’s May Ortega spoke with Austin Fisher who broke the story this week for the Rio Grande Sun. He says test results show contaminant levels are lower now than they were in the fall.
Fisher: Right now it’s not clear where it came from, but on November 27th of last year, a [state] employee took a sample from the northeast side of the city that contained 10.8 milligrams per liter of nitrates.
KUNM: What kind of problems can arise if somebody drinks this water?
Fisher: If an infant below six months of age is exposed to nitrates, they can develop blue baby syndrome and pregnant women can have complications in birth from consuming nitrates.
KUNM: The state environment department issued a violation to the city this week for the contamination. Why didn’t city officials notify people earlier, like when they got the water test results in November?
Fisher: Today I spoke with City Manager Xavier Martinez and Public Works Director Stephen Trujillo and what they told me is that they did not receive the lab results because of a discrepancy on the zip code listed on the lab results.
KUNM: And what does the federal law say about requirements for cities warning their residents when these types of contaminants, these dangerous levels, are found in their drinking water?
Fisher: Under the Safe Water Drinking Act, any local water system in the United States is required to notify their customers within 24 hours whenever they receive lab results that show a chemical or a substance above EPA standards.
KUNM: Does it look like this incident might bring some change for communities in New Mexico when it comes to notifications about water safety?
Fisher: Española officials are telling me that they’re going to implement new checks and balances to ensure that when these lab results are created, that someone sees them. They want to include email, snail mail, text messages, phone calls in order to make sure that the lab results actually reach who needs to see them.
KUNM: What should people be doing for drinking water until the nitrate levels are back down? What is the city recommending for residents?
Fisher: People in Española definitely should not be giving this water to their infants. For now, actually, they’re distributing bottled water at Española City Hall on Paseo De Oñate and across the street at the Women, Infants and Children Office.
Editor's Note: The city of Española issued an amended nitrate drinking water notice and Española Mayor Javier Sanchez wrote a column that was published in the Rio Grande Sun here.
Correction: This story has been edited to reflect that it was a state employee who took the water samples in November 2018, not a city employee. Also, the spelling of City Manager Xavier Martinez' name has also been corrected.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.