Farmers use ammonium nitrate as a crop fertilizer and plants produce it to use as an energy source in the absence of light. The problem is that nitrate could be responsible for starting a chain of events in the body that leads to the formation of cancer-causing agents, according to Richard Loeppky, professor of chemistry, University of Missouri-Columbia. When nitrate is ingested, either through eating or drinking contaminated water, it is transferred into the bloodstream through normal digestive processes. Some of the nitrate then is transported to the salivary glands where bacteria transform it into nitrite. The nitrite is swallowed into the stomach again where it bonds with amino acids that are not combined with any particular protein. At this point, nitrolic acid is formed. This newly identified compound has properties that could lead to the formation of cancer in various areas of the body.
"The stomach is an ideal reactor for the kinds of chemistry that we are talking about," Loeppky explains. "In addition, other researchers have suspected that amino acids played a role in forming these cancerous compounds, but until we made this discovery, no one had much of an idea how this happened."
Nitrate also might combine with other compounds in the stomach to form cancer-causing agents, many of which must be metabolized before they are able to induce any damage. Because of this, Loeppky recommends that producers and consumers limit their use of nitrates as much as possible. "While we don't know much about this newly discovered compound, the evidence suggests that it can alter or damage DNA. What is completely unknown is the pathway on how this is accomplished."
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