Disinfecting Drinking Water With Chlorine Produces Dangerous Byproducts, Study Finds

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  • Chlorine is a powerful disinfectant that eliminates viruses and bacteria from the water
  • Disinfecting drinking water through chlorination creates byproducts that can be harmful to health
  • Chlorination is not frequently used in Europe but the water there is still safe from waterborne illnesses

One of the most common methods of disinfecting drinking water is by mixing it with chlorine, but the findings of a new research have revealed that this method creates byproducts that can be harmful to health.

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Chlorine is a powerful disinfectant that eliminates viruses and bacteria from the water, but it also reacts with phenols; compounds naturally found in the water that creates potentially dangerous byproducts.

In a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on Jan. 6, researchers used the amino acid N-acetyl-lysine, which is often used in the field of toxicology, to detect harmful molecules known as reactive electrophiles. The researchers then added amino acid to water that was treated with chlorine the same way drinking water is disinfected.

When they analyzed the solution after a full day, the researchers detected the compounds 2-butene-1,4-dial and chloro-2-butene-1,4-dial, which are known to be toxic and carcinogenic. These compounds have never been detected in drinking water until now.

“This study provides new insights into the formation of reactive and toxic electrophiles during chlorine disinfection,” study researcher Carsten Prasse, from Johns Hopkins University, and colleagues wrote in their study.

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The findings suggest that alternative methods of disinfecting water such as by using ozone, UV light or filtration should be considered. The researchers cited that chlorination is not frequently used in Europe but the water there is still safe from waterborne illnesses.

“There’s no doubt that chlorine is beneficial; chlorination has saved millions of lives worldwide from diseases such as typhoid and cholera since its arrival in the early 20th century,” Prasse said.

“But that process of killing potentially fatal bacteria and viruses comes with unintended consequences. The discovery of these previously unknown, highly toxic byproducts, raises the question how much chlorination is really necessary.”