Estimation of incidence and social cost of colon cancer due to nitrate in drinking water in the EU: a tentative cost-benefit assessment

H.J. van Grinsven*, A. Rabl, T.M. de Kok

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: Presently, health costs associated with nitrate in drinking water are uncertain and not quantified. This limits proper evaluation of current policies and measures for solving or preventing nitrate pollution of drinking water resources. The cost for society associated with nitrate is also relevant for integrated assessment of EU nitrogen policies taking a perspective of welfare optimization. The overarching question is at which nitrogen mitigation level the social cost of measures, including their consequence for availability of food and energy, matches the social benefit of these measures for human health and biodiversity. METHODS: Epidemiological studies suggest colon cancer to be possibly associated with nitrate in drinking water. In this study risk increase for colon cancer is based on a case-control study for Iowa, which is extrapolated to assess the social cost for 11 EU member states by using data on cancer incidence, nitrogen leaching and drinking water supply in the EU. Health costs are provisionally compared with nitrate mitigation costs and social benefits of fertilizer use. RESULTS: For above median meat consumption the risk of colon cancer doubles when exposed to drinking water exceeding 25 mg/L of nitrate (NO3) for more than ten years. We estimate the associated increase of incidence of colon cancer from nitrate contamination of groundwater based drinking water in EU11 at 3%. This corresponds to a population-averaged health loss of 2.9 euro per capita or 0.7 euro per kg of nitrate-N leaching from fertilizer. CONCLUSIONS: Our cost estimates indicate that current measures to prevent exceedance of 50 mg/L NO3 are probably beneficial for society and that a stricter nitrate limit and additional measures may be justified. The present assessment of social cost is uncertain because it considers only one type of cancer, it is based on one epidemiological study in Iowa, and involves various assumptions regarding exposure. Our results highlight the need for improved epidemiological studies.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number58
    Number of pages12
    JournalEnvironmental Health
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2010


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