Nitrate is a polyatomic ion with the molecular formula NO3− and a molecular mass of 62.0049 g/mol. Nitrates are mainly produced for use as fertilizers in agriculture because of their high solubility and biodegradability. The main nitrates are ammonium, sodium, potassium, and calcium salts. Several million kilograms are produced annually for this purpose.
In freshwater or estuarine systems close to land, nitrate can reach high levels that can potentially cause the death of fish. While nitrate is much less toxic than ammonia, levels over 30 ppm of nitrate can inhibit growth, impair the immune system and cause stress in some aquatic species. In most cases of excess nitrate concentrations in aquatic systems, the primary source is surface runoff from agricultural or landscaped areas that have received excess nitrate fertilizer. This is called eutrophication and can lead to algae blooms. As well as leading to water anoxia and dead zones, these blooms may cause other changes to ecosystem function, favouring some groups of organisms over others. As a consequence, as nitrate forms a component of total dissolved solids, they are widely used as an indicator of water quality.