home water health

Chloramine, Chlorine, Lead and Pipes: How Water Treatment Turned Toxic

What do the most Common Water Treatment Chemicals–Chlorine and Chloramine–Have to do with Lead in Water?

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Flint’s water crisis is a disastrous story of negligence and environmental injustice. After the city switched its water source, lead–a neurotoxic metal– began leaching from pipes into people’s drinking water. Families drinking tap water found their children had increased blood lead levels. While the mayor of Flint announced in April that the water is finally safe to drink again, many are still skeptical and concerned.

How did simply switching from one river to another river have such drastic effects on people’s water quality? TapScore has written this guide to help you understand why switching water sources (e.g. in Flint) or water disinfectants (in the case of D.C. water) can cause lead to leach from pipes, what the dangers are, and how to protect yourself.

The Science Behind Lead in Flint and D.C.

To understand how lead leaches into water, we first need to know what water disinfectants are and how they can affect drinking water and human health. We’ll bring you through the science behind lead leaching in pipes through the stories of two different cities that made changes to their water: DC switched its disinfectant, while Flint switched its water source.

What Are Water Disinfectants?

The water that enters our homes is sourced from natural rivers, lakes, and man-made reservoirs. This water contains microorganisms, organic matter, soil, naturally occuring metals, and much more. The particulate matter and natural elements can be filtered out using physical barriers (e.g. reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, or other filtration methods). Microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria, however, must be killed using a disinfectant.

Chlorine is the most common disinfectant, but other disinfectants include chlorine dioxide, chloramines, UV light, and ozone. Since its introduction in the late 1800s, chlorine disinfection has become a major public health accomplishment, responsible for lowering the rates of infectious diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis, and cholera. Unfortunately, chlorine can also react with other naturally occurring materials in water to form disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which can be harmfulto long-term health. Regulation of DBPs inspired the use of chloramines as an alternative disinfectant because it forms less of the most common forms of DBPs. Chloramines are formed when ammonia is added to chlorine. But, as you may have guessed–chloramine has its own unintended consequences.

Switching from Chloramine to Chlorine

D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) switched from chlorine to chloramine to reduce risk of DBPs. Shortly thereafter, high lead levels became a concern–but WASA was slow to respond and communication to households failed to adequately portray the urgency of the water quality problem. Researchers (led by Dr. Marc Edwards, who later got involved in Flint) found that, between 2001-2003, blood lead levels in children were four times higher when compared to the year 2000. Edwards claims that D.C.’s lead crisis is 20-30 times worse that of Flint – with lead concentrations found to be three times higher than those in Flint and 6.5 times the amount of people exposed.

After these findings, the city of D.C. reverted from chloramine back to free chlorine in 2004. They subsequently found that water lead levels in some samples were up to 10-fold lower and that almost all samples were below the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb). WASA concluded that chloramine was not solely responsible for lead leaching, but that the absence of chlorine resulted in pipe corrosion.

Lead (or any metal) leaching occurs when corrosive water enters an old pipeline and easily reacts with the metal pipes, creating metal ions that enter the water. Chlorine can combine with lead to form an oxide, which acts as a passivation (protective) layer on the inside of the pipes. This protective layer was protecting pipes from corrosive water.

These findings left D.C. with a public health predicament: neither option was entirely safe. Fortunately, compounds such as zinc orthophosphate exist to help corrosion control while using chloramine as a disinfectant by reacting with pipes to form a passivation layer. While D.C. has kept corrosion control on a priority list, thousands of lead pipelines still remain in the city’s distribution system.

Switching Water Sources

When Detroit Water and Sewer decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the goal was to save costs. The city planned to switch to Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron, but they had about a year before the project was complete–so they turned to Flint River. As we now know, engineers and officials failed to adequately manage the new source.

Health data showed that the number of children with lead levels in their blood had increased from 2.4% to 4.9% after the water source switch. One sample of Flint’s water had a record breaking level of 13,200 ppb lead, which is almost 900 times higher than the EPA limit. Lead is neurotoxic and dangerous for anyone, but especially for children because it can stunt their development and lead to behavioral problems and decreased IQ.

Lead leaching into drinking water shares similar water chemistry in Flint as in DC. The original water source that came in treated from Detroit had added orthophosphate to account for lead pipes, which created a strong passivation layer made of phosphate minerals. When Flint started treating its own water, they did not add orthophosphate and they did not adequately control the pH of their new water. When pH is too low (more acidic) in the absence of orthophosphate, lead can leach into the drinking water. The protection layer was quickly corroded, exposing Flint’s lead pipes and leading to lead leaching in water.

How can I protect myself?

An estimated 15-25 million homes are still connected to lead pipelines laid before they were banned in 1986. While most water systems actively manage the water quality and test for lead, the stories of Flint and D.C. illuminate how quickly things can go wrong. Hopefully, any metal leaching situation you may encounter is not as extreme. There are some things that you can do to protect yourself, depending on whether you are a private well user or are a public water system customer.

Public Water System

  • Check up on your local water treatment plant to ensure they are conditioning (filtering & disinfecting) your water properly
  • Encourage your city to replace old pipes, especially if they’re lead
  • If you own your house and are able to replace old pipes, faucets, and fixtures within your home, do so, or
  • Test your water for lead and use a (reverse osmosis) water filter if you have a lead concentration that the product can treat

Private Well

  • Keep up with conditioning (i.e. filtering & disinfecting) your water properly for the type and age of pipes that you have
  • If you drill a new well, monitor your water quality before and after switching to a new source
  • Replace old pipes, faucets, and fixtures in your home and within your well if they’re lead or
  • Consult the experts! Tapscore offers a lead specific test as well as an Advanced Well Water Test, and we can help discuss treatment options with you that will work for your unique water composition and chemistry.

More questions?

Feel free to chat with us a hello@simplewater.us!

Sources: 

https://archive.epa.gov/region03/dclead/web/html/chlorine.html

https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/chloramines-drinking-water

https://archive.epa.gov/region03/dclead/web/html/disinfection.html

https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es802789w

http://www.insidesources.com/whistleblower-traces-flints-roots-to-washingtons-own-water-crisis/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0043135417302099

https://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i7/Lead-Ended-Flints-Tap-Water.html

https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/q3.pdf

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/why_are_disinfection_byproducts_a_public_health_concern.pdf

http://wiki.biomine.skelleftea.se/wiki/index.php/Leaching_%28mobilization%29

https://www.awwa.org/Documents/DCDFiles/15771/jaw_waternet.0065358.pdf

What is Reverse Osmosis (RO)?

Reverse Osmosis is an advanced water filtration technique, but is it for you?

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Finally! A detailed explanation for the type of water filtration you’ve probably heard most about, and for a good reason–reverse osmosis (RO) treats more contaminants than almost any other filter.

RO can filter out contaminants like arsenic, bacteria, lead, and fluoride. This makes it a popular treatment technology in water systems, but also at home. RO systems range from under-the-sink to point of entry (POE) installations treating the whole home’s water.

If you already have an RO and are trying to diagnose a leak or a problem with your system, hop over to our handy problem-identification guide about RO system leaks. For newcomers or interested-RO owners, Tap Score created this guide to explain how reverse osmosis works, which contaminants it does and does not remove, and what some of the pros and cons of an RO system are.

How does Reverse Osmosis Work?

Osmosis occurs in the natural world and is essential to many plants and animals’ life processes (an example being when plants absorb water from soil). During osmosis, water moves across a semipermeable membrane from an area with a low concentration of dissolved particles to an area with a high concentration of dissolved particles. A semipermeable membrane is a material that lets some atoms or molecules through while stopping others–similar to a screen door letting in air but keeping bugs out. This flow leads to an equal concentration of particles in water on either side of the semipermeable membrane.

Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, does not occur in nature. It requires added energy in the form of pressure to force water to move from an area of high concentration of particles to an area of lowconcentration of particles.

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The effect is to concentrate contaminants on one side of the semipermeable membrane (the waste stream) and produce freshwater for drinking on the other side (fresh water product).

What does an RO System Include?

Reverse osmosis itself only includes the passage of water through a semipermeable membrane. However, RO systems always contain additional pre-treatment filters and often post-treatment filters. These extra filters are referred to as “stages”. For example, if you see an RO system advertised as a 5-stage system, that means water passes through 5 stages of filtration before arriving at your faucet.

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Pre-treatment

Semi-permeable membranes are very sensitive–this means they are easily damaged if water is not properly treated before reaching the membrane. There are multiple kinds of pretreatment filters that water must pass through to prevent foulingscaling, and premature RO membrane failure:

  • Multimedia filtration/microfiltration is used to filter out sediment particles such as sand, clay, and plant matter/microorganisms. If these particles are not filtered out, they can cause fouling–they accumulate on the RO membrane and plug it up. 
  • Granular activated carbon (GAC) removes organic contaminants and disinfectants in the water such as chlorine or chloramines. Chlorine and chloramines are oxidizers and can react with the RO membrane and “burn” holes in it. 
  • Antiscalants/scale inhibitors are chemicals added to water to prevent scaling on the RO membrane. Scaling happens when dissolved compound concentrations exceed their solubility limits and precipitate out of the water and onto the membrane. A common example is calcium carbonate, or CaCO3, which occurs frequently if you have hard water. 

If pre-treatment is not used or maintained properly, fouling and scaling can decrease water flow across the membrane and decrease water quality.

Post-treatment

Post treatment can include an additional GAC filter to remove any last organic contaminants that still remain, remineralization/alkaline treatment, or UV treatment for bacteria.

What Does Reverse Osmosis Remove from My Drinking Water?

RO can treat inorganic contaminants such as (but not limited to):Arsenic

  • Asbestos
  • Nitrates & sulfates
  • Lead, aluminum, copper, nickel
  • Dissolved solids/salts

However, because all RO systems also contain carbon and sediment pre-filters, they can also filter some pesticides, algae, some bacteria & viruses, and other organic contaminants. (For a full list of RO treated contaminants click here).

Reverse osmosis does not remove molecules smaller than 0.0001 micrometers or molecules that are nonpolar, such as dissolved gases. Specifically, it does not catch:

  • Some pesticides/herbicides (1,2,4-trichlorobenzene, 2,4-D and Atrazine)
  • Some ions & metals (chlorine, radon)
  • Organic chemicals that weigh less than water (Benzene, Carbon tetrachloride, Dichlorobenzene, Toluene and Trihalomethanes (THMs))

Though some of these small particles may be caught by the carbon pre-filters, it is not guaranteed.

Common Complications Using Reverse Osmosis

There are a number of downsides to using reverse osmosis, including:

  • Increased water usage: Only 20-30% of the source water is discharged as clean water while 70-80% is discharged as more concentrated wastewater, so your water usage and bill will most likely go up.
  • Lot of upkeep: You must be very diligent about changing all of the pre-treatment filters on time–if chlorine is in your water and breaks through, you may cause permanent damage. RO membranes must also be sent away and cleaned by a serving company 1-4 times per year.
  • Difficult installation: A hole must be drilled in your home’s main drain pipe for the wastewater line, and in the countertop/sink for the faucet.
  • Water pressure: RO systems can decrease water pressure throughout your house.
  • Limited under sink space: Storage tank for treated water can take up under sink storage.
  • Can remove too much: Reverse osmosis can filter out good minerals from water such as ion and manganese. 

The Ultimate Question: Is a Reverse Osmosis System Right for Me?

If you have a problem with inorganic contaminants such as arsenic, fluoride, or nitrates, or if you have a high total dissolved solid (TDS) count, RO is likely a great option for you. If you have multiple water quality issues that include both organic and inorganic contaminants, reverse osmosis is a good option that will cover all your bases.

It is important, however, for you to know your water’s full chemical profile before installing a reverse osmosis system. Why should you test before you treat with RO? RO is expensive and time consuming–so you’ll want to make sure this is the right choice. Further, membranes can be damaged by certain contaminants present in your water, so knowing what type of pretreatment you need is essential, just like Tap Score’s Essential Water Test.

Have more questions? Feel free to email us at contact@simplewater.us!

Why Is My RO Water Filter Leaking?

Do you have a reverse osmosis (RO) water treatment system? Is it not working properly? This is an article to help you determine why your drinking water filter is leaking and what you can do to fix your RO. 

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If you own and maintain a reverse osmosis water treatment system in your home, then you’re probably already aware that things sometimes go awry. The water quality engineers at SimpleWater have pulled together a helpful list of the most common problems people have with their Reverse Osmosis water filters at home along with the most common solutions.

Reverse Osmosis: Problems, Solutions – A Quick Guide

Scan the headlines below for common symptoms, causes, and solutions to water filter failures. If you have questions about your water quality or your water treatment system, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our professional water testing team.

Scale forming on the membrane?

Cause: Failure of the antiscalant, acid dosing device, or pH monitor

Fix: Check your dosing equipment is working properly and monitor all changes in water quality before and after the RO system. Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.us or clicking on our help page.

Iron accumulation on the filters and membranes?

(Leading to a high pressure difference and low permeate flow)

Cause: High iron content in raw water, corroding pipes, failure of media filters

Fix: Check pipes and media filters. Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.us or clicking on our help page.

Bacterial film on filters and membranes?

(Leading to high pressure difference and low permeate flow)

Cause: Ineffective sanitization or biocide

Fix:  Sanitize all filters, perform microbiological analysis, check chemical dosing tanks; heck for biocide adsorption on carbon filters, check contact times and dose rates, select broad-spectrum biocide for organic content. Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.us or clicking on our help page.

Organic or humic content on filters and membranes?

Cause: High organic content

Fix: Test the feed water for TOC and color Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.usor clicking on our help page.

Membrane damage leading to high salts passthrough and high flux?

Cause: Chlorine overdosing

Fix: Perform chlorine tests, check dosing equipment, redox meters, bisulfite levels and the general location of dosing equipment. Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.us or clicking on our help page.

High Salt Passthrough?

Cause: Failure of the O-ring at the permeate tube

Fix: Check conductivity in each vessel and membrane. Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.us or clicking on our help page.

Bacteria and colloid fouling of micron-pre filters and membranes

Cause: Breakthrough of your media pre-filter

Fix: Wash your media pre-filters and add some biocide. Ask our team for help by emailing: hello@simplewater.us or clicking on our help page.

Reading a Consumer Confidence Report with Confidence

How to Make Sense of Water Quality Reports from your Local Water Utility

It’s undeniable that knowing what’s in your water is, at the very least, prudent. At SimpleWater, we think it’s crucial. What you put in your body impacts both your short-term and long-term health. Our goal is to enable people to both discover and understand what is in their drinking water. Our Tap Score home water testing kits are one means of spreading that goal, but there are lot of other resources out there that that can shed some light about what flows from your tap. If you are wondering why your tap water, smellslooks, or even tastes funny–a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) is one way to start finding answers.

What is a Consumer Confidence Report?

Simply put, a CCR is a water quality report. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) the purpose of these reports are to improve public health protection and provide information to enable water consumers to make educated decisions regarding potential health risk pertaining to the following:

  • Drinking water quality
  • Drinking water treatment
  • Drinking water supply management
     

You will only receive a CCR if you are on a community water system. People who receive their water from a private well do not receive CCRs, as private wells are not regulated by the EPA. However, if you are on a private groundwater well and would like more information–we recommend taking a look at the Center For Disease Control’s Private Ground Water Wells page.  

How Can I Receive My Consumer Confidence Report?

The way you are able to access your CCR depends on your living situation.

  • If you live in a home: You will most likely automatically receive a copy of your CCR from your local water utility via mail each year.
  • If you live in a condominium or apartment: You may not receive a direct copy of their CCR. However, you can still access your water quality reports by calling your local water provider or looking up  your community water system’s website. If your community water system does not have a website, search your area on the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) and try calling them or your local water district

What Does a Consumer Confidence Report Tell You?

At first glance, CCRs can appear quite technical. However, once you know what to look for,  you will find a wealth of valuable information. All Consumer Confidence Reports are required to contain certain elements, such as information regarding:

All data on your CCR will be tailored to your local water utility.

Here’s a great sample CCR report (courtesy of the National Science Foundation):

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What Does All of This Mean?!

To read the CCR above, you can interpret each column as telling you:

Column 1:  What contaminant they evaluated (e.g. Barium)

Column 2: The contaminant Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) and Maximum Contaminant Level Goals

Column 3: The average concentration of that contaminant that was detected in your water in the water test

Column 4: The range of concentrations of the contaminant that was detected in your water (they take multiple samples)

Column 5: Whether or not the concentration in your water violates the MCL

Column 6: Explanation of where the contaminant comes from naturally

Column 7: A short overview of health effects related to the contaminant.

What To Do If You Are Concerned About Your Consumer Confidence Report?

Unfortunately, Consumer Confidence Reports do not always report 100% clean water results.. Frequently, chemicals and contaminants may be present in your water, and it might have you feeling confused or concerned. Rightfully so!

If you are concerned about the content of your CCR, the good news is there are things you can do. Along with calling your local water utility directly, some resources include:

Our Tap Score home-testing kit is another great resource if your questions were not addressed on your CCR. We test for over 400 contaminants, will provide you with cutting edge water health analysis, unbiased treatment recommendations. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us at hello@simplewater.us and we’d be happy to help!

Sources: 

https://www.epa.gov/ccr

https://www.epa.gov/ccr/how-water-systems-comply-ccr-requirements

https://www.epa.gov/ccr/consumer-confidence-report-rule-quick-reference-guide

https://www.epa.gov/ccr/consumer-confidence-report-rule-and-rule-history-water-systems

http://www.nsf.org/consumer-resources/water-quality/water-filters-testing-treatment/consumer-confidence-reports

https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/understanding_ccr.html

http://www.nsf.org/consumer-resources/water-quality/water-filters-testing-treatment/consumer-confidence-reports

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310926/

Buying A Water Test Online?

Read this before you buy!

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It is important to periodically check the health of your drinking water. Nobody disputes that.

Whether you are served by a private well or a local water utility, buying a laboratory-based water test online is one of the easiest ways to get a clear picture of your water quality. There are different types of online water tests and different types of water quality reports. These are some of the most important things to look for when choosing one to avoid misleading products and shady business practices.

5 Rules You Need-To-Know:

1. Don’t Be Scammed, No Online Sampling Method Will Be Fully Certified.

If they say otherwise they’re probably lying. The only way to obtain a fully Certified Sample is if a trained technician, authorized by your State comes to your home and performs the sampling. Most situations do not require this arduous certification sampling process, and any online test that describes itself as “certified” may be selling you snake oil.

2. Do-It-Yourself Home Test Kits Are Neither Accurate Nor Comprehensive. 

 For chemical water testing, products like this are not worth the time, mess or your money. They are your worst-case scenario testing option. Laboratory professionals should perform chemical analysis, the testing equipment costs millions of dollars for a reason. Biological testing for bacteria and other pathogens is an exception to this rule. Self Testing kits for coliform and other bacteria are much more accurate and can save you hundreds of dollars on testing and overnight shipping fees.

3. Find The Test That Fits Your Needs. 

If you have a private well, buy a well water test (here's ours). If you are the customer of local water utility the look for a test that specializes in treated drinking water (e.g. city water test).

4. Return Shipping Costs Can Be Expensive–Check for Hidden Costs. 

Many labs exclude the expensive cost of return shipping when they sell a testing service. Sending a heavy, water-filled package quickly to the lab (especially for testing bacteria) can cost you as much as $40. Look for testing services that include all hidden costs. 

5. More Contaminants Does Not Mean Better Testing. 

Many companies will try to sell you on their kits by listing a huge number of contaminants. This is nothing more than marketing spin. Any lab can readily perform certain testing methods that will concurrently analyze water for hundreds of superfluous chemicals. However, most of these chemicals have no realistic chance of appearing in your drinking water, (nor indeed appearing on planet earth!). 



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