Disinfection and Disinfection By-Products Fact Sheet - EH: Minnesota Department of Health

Disinfection and Disinfection By-Products

Download a print version of this page:
Drinking Water Disinfection and Disinfection By-Products
(PDF: 274KB/1 page)

For centuries, people were largely unaware of the need to treat the water we drink. Many thought that the taste of the water determined its purity, not knowing that even the best tasting water could contain disease-causing organisms. Even the fact that disease could be spread through drinking water was not commonly known until the latter part of the 1800s.

With this knowledge came an awareness of the need to treat our water. Great Britain began disinfecting its drinking water early in the 20th century and saw a sharp decline in typhoid deaths. Shortly after, disinfection was introduced into the United States, which resulted in the virtual elimination of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and hepatitis A. The goal of disinfection is to kill or render harmless microbiological organisms that cause disease and immediate illness.

The most common method of disinfection is through the addition of chlorine to drinking water supplies. Not only is chlorine effective against waterborne bacteria and viruses in the source water, it also provides residual protection to inhibit microbial growth after the treated water enters the distribution system. This means it continues working to keep the water safe as it travels from the treatment plant to the consumer's tap.

However, even though chlorine has been a literal lifesaver with regard to drinking water, it also has the potential to form by-products that are known to produce harmful health effects. Chlorine can combine with organic materials in the raw water to create contaminants called trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs). Repeated exposure to elevated levels of THMs and HAAs over a long period of time could increase a person's risk of cancer.

The formation of disinfection by-products is a greater concern for water systems that use surface water, such as rivers, lakes, and streams, as their source. Surface water sources are more likely to contain the organic materials that combine with chlorine to form THMs and HAAs.

Surface water systems serving a population greater than 10,000 must regularly test their treated water to determine if THMs and HAAs are present. If the THMs and HAAs exceed the limits set by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the water system must take action to correct the problem. The corrective actions include notifying all residents served by the water system. By 2004, all community and nontransient noncommunity water systems that provide disinfection will be required to test for THMs and HAAs and meet the limits set by EPA.

Since the mid-1970s, when the threat posed by disinfection by-products became known, water utilities have been reviewing their operations to minimize THM and HAA formation without compromising public health protection. This has involved adjustment to the type and amount of chlorine used as well as where it is applied. In addition, the treatment process has been expanded to remove the naturally occurring organic matter that reacts with chlorine to produce THMs and HAAs.

Other means of disinfection besides chlorine are available. However, these methods may also produce harmful by-products. In addition, alternative disinfectants cannot provide the residual protection (that is, continue to disinfect in the city-wide distribution system) of chlorine-based disinfectants, so they must be used in combination with chlorine.

Drinking water treatment operations must often meet competing objectives-adequate microbial protection, reduced levels of disinfection by-products, and corrosion control-to comply with EPA regulations. The key to treatment is to provide a balance between the health benefits of disinfected drinking water and the creation of by-products from the disinfectants.

It is not an easy task and is one that requires close and continuous attention. It is an ongoing process, and EPA is continuing to revise its regulations to provide the balance to prevent by-products with long-term health effects while keeping the microbiological quality of drinking water as the top priority.

Updated Monday, September 15, 2014 at 10:12AM