Facts and Truth About Drinking Water Disinfection By-products

Over the centuries, certain methods and processes were invented to ensure quality drinking water for all human beings. Researches and studies have been made to achieve the ultimate result when it comes to disinfecting water completely. There are particular chemicals or substances used that are responsible for this water disinfecting process. However, through careful and thorough research, it has been found that disinfection by-products are birthed whenever these disinfection treatment chemicals collide with natural organic or inorganic substances in the water.

Disinfection by-products result from a chemical reaction produced by a mixture of used disinfectant agents and organic or inorganic matter in water. Studies have been made when it comes to the relationship between these disinfection by-products and human health. It showed that disinfection by-products have a serious impact when it comes to a person's health. Furthermore, it is important to further the people's knowledge to spread awareness about the effects of the so-called disinfection by-products. 

What are Disinfection By-products?

Generally, a disinfection by-product is a chemical reaction resulting from the collision of the disinfectant agent used and the organic or inorganic substances found in the water. 

The most common disinfectant agent used when it comes to disinfecting water is Chlorine and Chloramine.

Recognizing the use of Chlorine in the disinfecting process of water has been one of the greatest achievements in the 1900s. It was well-celebrated that water chlorination had contributed positively to public health, particularly in achieving quality and drinkable water for the people. It had prevented waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. On the other hand, although being helpful with reducing bacteria in water, Chlorine did not become the ultimate water-cleansing solution as of many decades ago. For the reason that it continued to produce a lot of disinfection by-products. So, the use of Chlorine was then switched to Chloramine instead. There was a significant reduction in the production of disinfection by-products of using Chloramine, but they still manage to exist in our waters. Not to mention that, when the switch was made, a lot of tap water users reported to be having skin diseases, respiratory symptoms, and digestive disorders.

Properties of Chloramine

  1. Chloramine has one characteristic that allows it to achieve longevity in water, which is very useful in terms of its travel through long distancing water pipes.
  2. Chloramine in water is also beneficial in reducing the distinct taste and odor that the water normally has. 
  3. Chloramine has proven its advantage when it comes to lowering the number of disinfection by-products that are found in water. Incomparable to Chlorine, Chloramine reduces the production of disinfection by-products in water. Disinfection by-products are the unwanted, unexpected, and unintentional results from the chemical reaction between the Chloramine and respective organic or inorganic substance.

As EPA rules on allowable disinfection byproducts in drinking water have become more stringent, more water utilities are employing chloramine for secondary disinfection.

A limitation of chloramine in water treatment techniques is the potential to begin the nitrification method whenever distributing water throughout.

What is Nitrification?

According to Wikipedia, Nitrification is the biological oxidation of ammonia or ammonium to nitrite followed by the oxidation of the nitrite to nitrate. The transformation of ammonia to nitrite is usually the rate-limiting step of nitrificationNitrification is an important step in the nitrogen cycle in soil.

Nitrification increases when the temperature of the water also increases. In addition, nitrifying bacteria is quite difficult when trying to remove it, which then affects the quality of water resulting in only minor health problems. 

Nitrification is a process that is something to avoid and to do so, and water treatment plants must make sure to reduce the residence time of water in the phase of distribution. Yet, some water disinfecting plants controls nitrification from occurring in their water systems by occasionally switching the disinfecting agents, which is Chloramine to Chlorine, vice versa.

The irony in this matter is that this great discovery in water disinfecting had carried unintentional health hazards with it. It is through the disinfection by-products that cause some minor and serious health problems, such as cancer.

Chlorine and Chloramine are considered strong oxidizing agents, which makes them capable of destroying pathogens or bacteria, reducing compounds that form to give off a certain taste/odor to the water, and leaving off residues of any form of water contamination. These disinfecting agents allow the water to travel going to the consumer's tap with full assurance of accessing quality and safe water. 

As these disinfectant agents freely flow in the water to do their business, there will be a high tendency to bump into naturally present compounds. On this occasion, different variations of disinfection by-products are produced. 

It is a complex picture when trying to puzzle every piece of this process. There is a wide range of disinfectant agents and naturally present organic and inorganic substances in the water. In addition, there are also several disinfection by-products—each combination from one party bumping to the other results in a whole different kind of disinfection by-product. 

Factors that Affect the Production of Disinfection By-products

Furthermore, many factors contribute highly to the formation of these disinfection by-products. The chemical reaction will vary according to:

  • the kind of disinfectant agent utilized in the water disinfectant process
  • the quantity or measurement of the disinfectant agent
  • The concentration of natural organic matter and bromide/iodide
  • the period since dosing (i.e., water age)
  • Water's temperature and;
  • pH scale of the water

These factors have a huge impact when it comes to the outcome of a disinfection by-product. For example, the higher the quantity or measurement of a disinfectant agent, the bigger the volume of disinfection by-products. If dosing is shorter, it can result in higher concentrations of organic compounds and disinfection by-products. 

Are there different kinds of disinfection by-products?

There is a wide variation of disinfection by-products because several disinfectant agents and organic or inorganic compounds are also endless. Hence, each combination of both can result in a whole different type of disinfection by-product. 

For example, public or private swimming pools that use chlorine for disinfecting the pools' water were mostly found to have contained a disinfection by-product called trihalomethanes. Furthermore, another by-product is also found in the same situation and is called Trichloramine.

Trichloramine results from the combination of urea, an organic compound from sweats and urine, and chlorine. This combination is the one responsible for that distinct pool smell. Moreover, it is known that these by-products can cause asthma, usually diagnosed by professional swimmers. Most importantly, in this disinfection by-product alone, several risks are already presented to trouble a person's health significantly. 

So, there are three subjects in this equation- disinfectant agent, naturally present organic or inorganic compound, and disinfection by-products. We could try and name all the examples under each subject. However, that is another topic to discuss in a different period since it will be a long conversation. It is a difficult task to tackle due to the endless number of substances for each subject. 

The bottom line is that there can be thousands of results when we try to mix and match everything. But, only one thing is for sure, disinfection by-products have posed potential threats to human health. 

The Health Hazards of Disinfection By-products

Disinfection agents were used to achieving one common goal: to ensure that everyone has access to safe and drinkable water. However, with that amazing discovery came an unexpected consequence- disinfection by-products. These DBPs continue to scatter in our water, creating an increase in the number of people getting sick. Despite the attempts to clear them out, our attempts have been outnumbered. 

From water chlorination to chloramine disinfection to multiple disinfection methods more, still, DBPs are invincible. The severity of the health problems that we might acquire from disinfection by-products depends on the volume of water consumed by the person.

It definitely can be alarming, and at the same time disappointing, that you expect your area to distribute clean tap water into your homes and find out that they might harm your health. As the water travels the water pipes going into your home, it already had enough time to produce DBPs unintentionally. Although there might be the presence of chlorine, chloramine, or any other disinfecting agent used, still the process of disinfection itself results in health-threatening cases. 

When DBPs are unknowingly consumed over some time, these toxic by-products can cause serious health problems. They have been associated with causing cancer, miscarriages, abnormal birth weight, and many more consequences. 

Most importantly, DBPs are not only acquired from drinking water. It can also be acquired through absorption and inhalation. It has been reported that you absorb twice the quantity of DBPs whenever you take a nice, warm shower. You can also inhale DBPs by doing the laundry or washing dishes. 

Unfortunately, there is only limited information yet made available regarding the specific health problems you get from obtaining DBPs. There have been countless studies being done to identify specific health problems that are caused by disinfection by-products. Although, such studies have not established consistency yet in determining accurate answers. The most accurate so far is that the common existing by-product so far is Trihalomethane. Consecutive consumption of this kind of disinfection by-products formed in chlorinated water can lead to bladder cancers. The flow of concern continues as we have these numerous questions in mind.

If worth anything, the risk of drinking water that did not go through any process of disinfecting is still greater than disinfected water containing such DBPs. Additionally, major health consequences only arise through long-term exposure to DBPs instead of non-disinfected water that can get you sick in minutes or hours. 

Nonetheless, organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and other health organizations are doing non-stop research to better the knowledge of the entire population when it comes to the nature of these disinfection by-products.

The Step towards Removing Disinfection By-products

Water Disinfecting Plants are now practicing this new method to minimize the number of DBPs in water. They persistently strive to remove organic or inorganic substances naturally present in the water first before adding the disinfectant agent. This is to make certain that disinfecting agents will not have as many organic or inorganic substances to collide or oxidize with, which will significantly reduce the birth of disinfection by-products.

All water systems and utilities are carefully being supervised. Your local area is expected to incorporate disinfectant methods in your water system to provide the community with drinkable water. Certain regulations are being implemented for your local area to follow to ensure that reliable water is being distributed throughout the community. Constant monitoring is also required to determine the presence of disinfection by-products in the area's water resource. This is to take the needed and immediate course of action whenever necessary. 

The Environment Protection Agency requires every region to maximize water disinfecting methods in their water systems, which at the same time does not increase the number of DBPs upon the disinfection process. 

There is difficulty in determining the proper preventive actions to take to prevent acquiring these DBPs. There are a lot of factors that could make up the whole picture. The source of water, the type of disinfectant used, changes in seasons and weather, and the distance between the water disinfecting plant going to your house.  


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