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Byproduct of water-disinfection
process found to be highly toxic
Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
toxicologist Michael Plewa and Elizabeth Wagner, principal
research specialist, both in the department of crop scieces,
collaborated with three EPA researchers on research into a
disinfection byproduct found in drinking water treated with
Ill. — A recently discovered disinfection byproduct (DBP) found
in U.S. drinking water treated with chloramines is the most toxic ever
found, says a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
who tested samples on mammalian cells.
The discovery raises health-related questions regarding an Environmental
Protection Agency plan to encourage all U.S. water-treatment facilities
to adopt chlorine alternatives, said Michael J. Plewa [PLEV-uh], a genetic
toxicologist in the department of crop
“This research says that when you go to alternatives, you may
be opening a Pandora’s box of new DBPs, and these unregulated
DBPs may be much more toxic, by orders of magnitude, than the regulated
ones we are trying to avoid.”
Plewa and colleagues, three of them with the EPA, report on the structure
and toxicity of five iodoacids found in chloramines-treated water in
Corpus Christi, Texas, in this month’s issue of the journal Environmental
Science & Technology. The findings, which appeared online in advance,
already have prompted a call from the National Rural Water Association
for a delay of EPA’s Stage 2 rule aimed at reducing the amount
of previously identified toxic DBPs occurring in chlorine-treated water.
“The iodoacids may be the most toxic family of DBPs to date,”
Plewa said in an interview. One of the five detailed in the study, iodoacetic
acid, is the most toxic and DNA-damaging to mammalian cells in tests
of known DBPs, he said.
“These iodoacetic acids raise new levels of concerns,” he
said. “Not only do they represent a potential danger because of
all the water consumed on a daily basis, water is recycled back into
the environment. What are the consequences? The goal of Stage 2 is to
reduce DBPs, particularly the ones that fall under EPA regulations,
and especially the ones that have been structurally identified and found
to be toxic.”
The use of chloramines, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, is one
of three alternatives to chlorine disinfectant, which has been used
for more than 100 years. Other alternatives are chlorine-dioxide and
ozone. All treatments react to compounds present in a drinking water
source, resulting in a variety of chemical disinfectant byproducts.
Some 600 DBPs have been identified since 1974, Plewa said. Scientists
believe they’ve identified maybe 50 percent of all DBPs that occur
in chlorine-treated water, but only 17 percent of those occurring in
chloramines-treated water, 28 percent in water treated with chlorine-dioxide,
and just 8 percent in ozone-treated water. Of the structurally identified
DBPs, he said, the quantitative toxicity is known for maybe 30 percent.
Some DBPs in chlorine-treated water have been found to raise the risks
of various cancers, as well as birth and developmental defects.
Corpus Christi’s water supply has high levels of bromide and iodide
because of the chemical makeup of the ancient seabed under the water
source. Local water sources lead to different DBPs. Whether the types
of iodoacids found in Corpus Christi’s treated water might be
simply a reflection of local conditions, and thus a rare occurrence,
is not known.
The DBPs in Corpus Christi’s water were found as part of an EPA
national occurrence survey of selected public water-treatment plants
done in 2002. The survey reported on the presence of 50 high-priority
DBPs based on their carcinogenic potential. The report, published in
April, also identified 28 new DBPs.
Because so many new DBPs are being found in drinking water, Plewa said,
two basic questions should be asked: How many are out there? And how
many new ones will be formed as chlorine treatments are replaced with
Co-authors with Plewa on the EPA-funded study were Elizabeth D. Wagner,
a scientist in the department of crop sciences at Illinois; Susan D.
Richardson and Alfred D. Thruston Jr. of the EPA’s National Exposure
Research Laboratory; Yin-Tak Woo of the EPA’s Risk Assessment
Division, Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics; and A. Bruce McKague
of the CanSyn Chemical Corp. of Toronto.