Posted on June 4, 2013 - 23 Comments
AND YOU THOUGHT CHLORINE WAS BAD.
As someone who was under the assumption that my drinking water was chlorinated, and that I could easily clean out the chlorine with carbon-based filters, I was shocked to find out that the water in the city where I live (Victoria, B.C.) has been using a different substance for many years now. That substance may be soon coming to a town near you, as more city water systems switch over from chlorine treatment to using chloramine.
According to the CRD, my water is disinfected “using ultraviolet light followed by the addition of chlorine and then ammonia. In the water, these latter two substances combine to produce chloramines. Chloramines have the advantage of being very long lasting (i.e. a residual amount of chlorine provides continuing disinfection even out to the extremities of the distribution system), lower production of disinfection byproducts such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids and lower perception of chlorinous tastes and odour.” (There are a variety of compounds produced known as chloramines, but currently they are commonly referred to by the generic singular term chloramine.)
WHAT IS CHLORAMINE?
Chloramine is the chemical that occurs when ammonia is reacted with chlorine (or “bleach”). Ammonia is introduced to water already treated with chlorine in city water systems. Chloramine is a weaker germicide than chlorine but it is more stable, which is why city water systems are turning to using it more often these days.
WHY IS IT REPLACING CHLORINE?
According to the U.S. EPA, because chloramine is more stable and does not dissipate as quickly as chlorine, chloramine provides better protection against bacterial re-growth, especially in water systems with large storage tanks and/or dead-end water mains.
The EPA maintains that, like chlorine, chloramine effectively controls biofilm, a bacterial growth that coats and corrodes pipes, and that can build up dangerous concentrations of coliform bacteria. But, whereas chlorine can dissipate by the time it reaches the end of a long water system, the chloramine still remains active and protective.
The EPA also considers chloramine to be safer than chlorine as a disinfectant because it produces less trihalomethanes (THM), a carcinogenic byproduct of water purification, than chlorine does. Chloramine also has a lower tendency than chlorine to convert organic materials in the water into carcinogenic chlorocarbons, such as chloroform and carbon tetrachloride.
IS CHLORAMINE TOXIC?
Notice that the label on a bottle of bleach or ammonia will have a prominent warning not to mix these two chemicals together. The result of this combination is a dangerous chemical called monochloramine that is a toxic gas, very irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. Chloramine may have a tendency to produce less carcinogens than chlorine but, like chlorine, chloramine is still toxic.
The EPA (and Canadian water regulators) believes that neither compound poses health risk for humans, at the levels used for disinfecting drinking water. But it is acknowledged that, even at those low levels, both compounds can harm fish and amphibians, and they are particularly concerned about preventing spills of these substances from entering fish habitats.
Chloramine, like chlorine, is toxic to fish and cannot be used in aquarium water. Those who have an aquarium have to treat water with a dechlorinator to remove either chlorine or chloramine, or the water will kill their fish. Do we really want to drink a substance known to be deadly to one species of life?
In hydroponic applications chloramine has been shown to impede the growth and production of plants. When watering with chlorinated water the majority of the chlorine will evaporate after 8 or so hours, but chloramine takes days to evaporate, meanwhile working to kill off good bacteria found in the soil, and necessary for healthy plant growth.
One disadvantage that chloramine has, versus chlorine, is that it can increase heavy metal exposure, due to the ammonia present in the compound causing corrosion of copper and lead pipes. In areas with older housing and public water systems that still use copper or lead piping, this exposure can result in dangerous levels of lead and/or copper in the bloodstream of those who drink the water.
When water contains high amounts of ammonia, nitrate levels will rise. Nitrates, in turn, cause the oxygen level in the blood to drop, and are known carcinogens. Both chlorine and chloramine have to be removed by special carbon filtration before water can be used for dialysis, because both compounds will destroy red blood cells. This contamination of water may be why some people have unexplained chronic anemia (a lack of red blood cells usually attributed to iron deficiency).
CHLORAMINE AND RESPIRATORY PROBLEMS
Chloramine, like chlorine, is worse when it is inhaled in gaseous form. It may cause respiratory problems, such as asthma, especially in swimmers, if it is used to disinfect swimming pools. Respiratory problems due to chloramine exposure are common among competitive swimmers, as is eye and skin irritation. Even if a swimming pool is not treated with chloramine, it is formed by the reaction of free chlorine with organic substances found occurring in the water, and so will be produced anyways.
The risk of respiratory problems also exists when the gaseous chlorine or chloramine is inhaled during a hot shower. Those who promote the use of chlorine and chloramine maintain that people can safely drink treated water because their digestive process neutralizes those substances before they can enter the bloodstream. But, just like fish that take chloramine directly into their bloodstream through their gills, the gaseous form enters our bloodstream through the lungs without a chance to be broken down (as much as is possible) by the digestive system.
Currently there are shower filters on the market that use vitamin C to remove the chloramine from shower water. (Link to product)
As well, of course, it is a good idea to keep the fan on (or door open, if there is no fan) in order to reduce exposure to vaporized chlorine or chloramine.
CHLORAMINE REMOVAL FROM WATER
Chlorine is bad enough as a water treatment, being a cumulative carcinogen, linked to heart disease, and creating by-products that contribute to cancer and birth defects. But chlorine at least will dissipate fairly fast, when water is boiled or left exposed to air (most sources suggest it takes 24hrs for total dispersal) while chloramine will not.
Chloramine is less reactive than chlorine, including less reactive to air. The supposed benefits of chloramine for disinfecting water requires a longer reaction time, but as a result it can take days (some say weeks) to break down into non-toxic components. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission offers some suggestions for those who wish to remove chloramine from their water (not that they believe that this is necessary for health purposes).
“If desired, chloramine and ammonia can be completely removed from the water by boiling; however, it will take 20 minutes of gentle boil to do that. Just a short boil of water (to prepare coffee, soup or tea) removed about 30% of chloramine. Both chlorine and chloramine can be removed for drinking water purposes by an activated carbon filter point of use device that can be installed on a kitchen faucet.”
FILTERS FOR CHLORAMINE REMOVAL
Such filters must be designed specifically for chloramine removal, and the form believed to be most effective is known as Catalytic Activated Carbon. Whole house systems are available but require large amounts of this substance. (Product link)
As well, the longer the water is in contact with the filter, the more contaminants are removed. One company suggests that “At least two carbon beds in series are required for a total of 10 minutes empty bed contact time at the maximum flow rate to remove chloramines.” This means that even with a table top filter, the longer it takes for the water to run through, the more chloramine you are likely to remove.
One company that offers such filters is “Filters Fast” which carries several types of chlorine and chloramine water filters. (Product link)
Unlike chlorine, chloramine is not removed by reverse osmosis filtration, and it is debated as to whether or not distillation even works on chloramine. According to one water expert “Distillation or evaporation does not remove chloramines effectively. During distillation the chloramines would be volatilized and carried over to the product water (distillate).”
For more information on filtration technologies I suggest visiting this website: http://www.cleanairpurewater.com/pure_water.html
VITAMIN C FOR CHLORAMINE REMOVAL
According to many experts, including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, both chlorine and chloramine can be removed from bathing water by dissolving Vitamin C in the bath water (1000 mg Vitamin C will neutralize both chlorine and chloramine in an average tub full of water). Ascorbic acid as powder is most commonly used, and a 1gr (1,000mg) tablet can be crushed, if powder is not available. Vitamin C degrades relatively quickly which only make it usable for short-term applications. Based on this principle SFPUC also suggests that adding fruit to a water pitcher (e.g., slicing peeled orange into a 1-gal water pitcher) will neutralize chloramine within 30 minutes. (Article)
If you want to find out what is being used to treat your water contact your local water officials (if you can’t find them in the phone book, call city hall).
Most experts believe that pitcher-style or faucet-mounted activated-charcoal water filters will not remove chloramine. Some suggest that the chlorine component will be removed, but we will be left with the ammonia. Because other environmental contaminants can raise levels of ammonia in our blood, and because it is a modern health issue, a future blog will be about natural ways to remove excess ammonia from our bodies.
Ultimately the simplest answer for those unable to upgrade to chloramine removal technologies, would be to simply add vitamin C to carbon-filtered water. Since only 1000 mg is required for a tub full of water, putting as little as 100 mg into each new pitcher of filtered water should be somewhat protective.