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The drawbacks of chlorine and chloramine as water disinfectants

Water Toxins

Water sanitizers are widely used worldwide to protect against waterborne pathogens. But there are serious consequences that can threaten the lives of people, particularly those living in low-income countries where clean water is not available.

Disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine protect against illnesses like vomiting, diarrhea, etc. But the drawback of our use of disinfectants is the mixture of disinfection byproducts formed after chlorine or chloramines have been added to the water supply. By-products are formed by the reaction among disinfectants (such as chlorine) and natural substances (such as organic matter or humic acids) found in water and surrounding pipelines. The CDC says disinfection byproducts are carcinogenic.

Today, chlorine is still a disinfectant often used for water treatment, but some countries have turned to chloramine as an alternative. Chloramine is an ammonia-chlorine mixture. Similar to chlorine, chloramine has been used as a disinfectant since the early 1900s but is becoming more and more popular. While chloramine is considered a slightly weaker disinfectant than chlorine, government agencies, including the CDC, now consider it a safer alternative to treating our water supply from chlorine.

The Ministry of Health says chloramine is more stable and readily distributes its benefits through water systems, enabling it to act as a long-term solution that prevents bacterial regeneration when your water crosses the distribution network. In addition, a report by the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that chloramine produces fewer disinfection byproducts.

In other words, water treated with chloramine will contain different disinfectant by-products than water treated with chlorine, but not necessarily fewer disinfectant by-products. That’s because when CDC and EPA report on disinfection by-products, they talk about regulated disinfection by-products. When they say that chloramine creates “fewer disinfection by-products” in water, they ignore other unregulated disinfection by-products in their estimates and the resulting proclamation.

Specifically, the EPA indicates that water treated with chloramine contains fewer regulated disinfection byproducts that are associated with human health problems and those that are present are often present at concentrations below those observed in chlorine-disinfected water. However, the EPA further notes that, unlike chlorinated disinfected water,
chloramine-treated water is more likely to contain different and higher levels of unregulated disinfectant by-products. Non-regulated by-products resulting from the disinfection of chloramines include iodo-trihalomethane, iodo-acids, and nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), the latter being particularly known for its toxicity and carcinogenicity.

Moreover, where chloramine is used as a residual disinfectant, it may alter the chemical properties of water in a manner that may result in the leaching of lead and copper. This has terrible health implications. Thus, whereas chloramine is a long-lasting disinfectant that produces fewer organized and well-known disinfection by-products, it poses a higher risk concerning disinfection by-products that we do not understand or fully regulate.

Chlorine and chloramines have their benefits and drawbacks, regardless of which one is used in the local system’s water treatment process, disinfection by-products will remain a very real threat because of the health risks they pose to a humans health.

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