Water Treatment Trend: Chloramine in Cities, Causes Lead Leaching

Causing Controversy Across the U.S.

It’s likely that in the last decade, your city made the decision to switch from treating water with chlorine to chloramine—a chemical that is a combination of chlorine and ammonia.

Cities have been making the transition to treating water with chloramine since as far back as the 1930s. In recent years, it’s been increasingly popular to make the switch. Just how popular is it? In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that one in five Americans are now drinking chloramine-treated water.

The most glaring question that comes to mind when reading that statistic is this: does this change matter? Is a switch from chlorine to chloramine a cause for concern, celebration, or a shrug? Regrettably, the answer is, it depends.

In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that one in five Americans are now drinking chloramine-treated water.

Back up, what do chlorine and chloramine do to water?

Drinking water is pulled from a number of sources including rivers, lakes, and wells, treated with chemicals to rid it of toxins, and sent to a tap near you. The treatment process is incredibly important. In addition to standardizing water quality, chlorine and chloramine rid your drinking supply of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

Depending on where the water source is located, water can travel a long way to your sink. Cities work to ensure that when water reaches you, it’s free of contaminants or bacteria that may grow as water travels through pipes underground.

Chlorine has long been the primary disinfectant for water. While it is successful in ridding water of contaminants and bacteria, there are two primary drawbacks:

  1. It doesn’t perform well in mixed company. A high percentage of dirt or germs in the original water source will react with chlorine to produce chemicals, called disinfection by-products. Some of these by-products, specifically trihalomethanes (THMs), were found to be carcinogenic after a lifetime of exposure.
  2. There’s no staying power. As previously mentioned, water sometimes travels long distances through the pipes. Chlorine disinfects the water effectively, but does not remain in the water for a long period of time; chlorine wears off, giving bacteria and other chemicals an opportunity to reemerge.

Chlorine vs. Chloramine Staying Power

These downsides aren’t enough to force all municipalities to move away from chlorine, but in 1979 the EPA began regulating the level of disinfection by-products in drinking water. In the case of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, their analysis found that continued use of chlorine would require significant capital investments to rid water of disinfection by-products. Money talks, and in this case, money told San Francisco it may be worthwhile to try a cheaper alternative.

Enter chloramine, a solution that is 5 parts chlorine and 1 part ammonia. Unlike chlorine, chloramine produces significantly lower levels of disinfectant by-product and remains in the water for a longer period of time, warding off toxins found in water throughout water’s journey to the tap.

Why are some people wary?

Even though chloramine provides certain benefits to the water treatment process, in recent years a few chloramine-related mishaps have added another voice to the conversation.

Between 2001 and 2004, Washington DC faced a controversy after they switched to chloramine, following the EPA’s guidelines to reduce disinfectant by-products in the water, but the change gave rise to high levels of lead in DC’s drinking water.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that chloramines leach lead in all cases. After surveying the issue, authorities found the increase in lead was the result of aging lead pipes as well as the specific chemistry of DC’s water. Some regions, including Greenville, North Carolina have also experienced a rise in lead after switching to chloramine, while other areas, like San Francisco, have not.

After DC’s water crisis was resolved, reports found that DC officials were slow to alert citizens of the risks, even after the water’s lead level grew to the point that the city was required to issue warnings.

Chloramine made news again in 2016 when environmental activist Erin Brockovich attended a town hall meeting in Stockton, California, after the city made the switch to using chloramines as its disinfectant. At the meeting, she claimed Stockton was “on the fast track to creating the next Flint.”

Chloramine Causes Controversy

The switch was prompted by a transition from using Sierra Nevada Reservoir water to San Joaquin River Delta water. Water from the delta contained a higher level of dirt and caused an increase in disinfection by-products, which got Stockton into deep water with the EPA. In spite of the protests, Stockton moved forward with its decision to use chloramines.

Shortly after Brockovich made her case at Stockton’s town hall, David Sedlack, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, argued that the protests from Stockton residents might have been unwarranted.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that chloramines leach lead in all cases. After surveying the issue, authorities found the increase in lead was the result of aging lead pipes as well as the specific chemistry of DC’s water.

In a Q & A, he pointed out that the incident in Washington DC was rare. In fact, it’s been one of the few documented cases of a water crisis resulting from chloramines since water treatment plants began using the chemical decades ago. Since then, engineers at treatment plants have done substantial water research and are now aware of the potential downsides associated with lead pipes so they can take the necessary steps to prevent lead leaching.

Okay, but those are the only downsides, right?

Lead leaching is not the only downside to chloramine, just the point that’s received the most press. In some circumstances, the ammonia in chloramines is oxidized and transformed into nitrates. This process is aptly named nitrification.

Nitrates do not pose a health concern as much as an operational hiccup. Nitrification leads to depletion of chloramine residuals that suppress bacterial growth. Fortunately, water engineers have identified this problem and implemented operational controls to limit the spread of nitrification.

We previously mentioned that chloramines persist in a water source for a longer period of time than chlorine, which is helpful in suppressing bacteria growth. This, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword. Once tap water has reached your glass, chloramines will take days if not weeks to dissipate, unlike chlorine, which will wear off after a couple days when left standing or several minutes if boiled.

Chlorine to chloramine switch.The levels of chloramine in water are not toxic to humans so the staying power of chloramine doesn’t impact the everyday individual. Instead, very specific subsections of the population feel the effects of chloraminated water:

  • Kidney dialysis patients are able to drink chloraminated water, but chloramines must be removed from dialysis machines otherwise it combines with red blood cells and will no longer carry oxygen.
  • Aquarium owners should be cognizant of chloramines in water because although humans neutralize chloramines as part of the digestion process, chloramines enter the bloodstream directly through a fish or reptile’s gills. This is toxic for aquarium animals.
  • Industries that rely on water, for example biotech companies and breweries, feel effects of chloraminated water.

In each case, the problem isn’t specifically chloramine (chlorine causes the same issues), but the persistence of chloramine. Instead of allowing water to stand for a few days to rid water of toxins, as these groups could do with chlorinated water, they are prompted to purchase special treatments to rid water of chloramines.

I still want to mitigate my risks

Although there are a number of reported downsides to chlorine and chloramine, in each case, water engineers have accounted for the pitfalls and designed solutions that maintain the integrity of drinking water. For people who want additional insurance that the water they’re drinking is clean, there are always other options.

Bottled water is often the first place people turn when their primary water source is causing concern. Bottled water is a good option, but notably, bottled water is regulated by an entirely different entity. The EPA regulates tap water, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water. The EPA and FDA have different standards of health and some facilities argue EPA standards are more stringent. Oftentimes, bottled water has also been chlorinated or chloraminated so it’s important to do research before picking up a case of water at your local supermarket.

Combining a drinking system with a whole home system is the best choice. Filter chlorine or chloramine from every tap in the home, and then use a drinking system to attack the tougher contaminants like PFOA or lead.

Alternatively, home filtration systems may provide consumers with a level of comfort about drinking tap water. Again, doing research before choosing a filtration system is vital because each system filters for different toxins and bacteria. Certain groups provide independent testing of these filtration systems. One such group, the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), is a nonprofit organization that independently tests, audits, and certifies these products.

Combining a drinking system with a whole home system is the best choice. Filter chlorine or chloramine from every tap in the home, and then use a drinking system to attack the tougher contaminants like PFOA or lead. The Aquasana EQ-400 is specifically designed to reduce chloramine from water using stronger, longer-lasting filtration media. All Aquasana drinking systems are certified to reduce up to 99 percent of 77 contaminants.

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