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Monochloramine treatment not as effective in protecting drinking water

The results of what may be the most extensive comparison of two common disinfectants used by municipal water systems suggest that, from a security standpoint, traditional chlorination may be more effective than treatment with monochloramine.

"We have found something that is not necessarily a surprise but has important implications. These are considerations that water quality professionals should take into account if they have switched or are considering switching to a monochloramine disinfection system," says Dan Kroll, Chief Scientist at Hach Homeland Security in Loveland, Colorado, and lead researcher on the study, presented today at the ASM Biodefense and Emerging Disease Research Meeting.

As part of a recent endeavor to develop a system for online, continuous monitoring of drinking water distribution networks, Kroll and his colleagues, in coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers, studied the interactions of a wide variety of potential waterborne threat agents (both biological and chemical) with different levels of either free chlorine or monochloramine present. They tested dozens of potential hazards, from pesticides to disease-causing bacteria to chemical warfare agents.

The researchers discovered that not only is monochloramine less reactive than free chlorine against a number of chemical threats, it also is a slightly less efficient disinfectant, requiring a longer time to kill bacterial contaminants.

Scientists have long known that monochloramine is a more stable compound, and that is part of the reason it is becoming more popular as an alternative to chlorine in municipal water systems. Free chlorine has traditionally been the disinfectant of choice for municipal water systems throughout the 20th century, but it has some drawbacks. It can react with organic materials in drinking water to produce chlorine by-products. Some of these by-products are considered carcinogenic and their levels in drinking water are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But Kroll and his colleagues have confirmed in their study that the stability of the monochloramine may have its drawbacks as well. Treatment with free chlorine, because it is more reactive, can lead to rapid degradation of chemical threats as well as early detection of contamination. As it reacts with a contaminant, chlorine levels in the water drop. Many municipalities use chlorine levels as indicators of possible contamination.

Monochloramine also requires more time to kill microbial contaminants in water. This should not be an issue in treatment plants, as water in monochloramine facilities can be held longer. "In the event of contamination of the water supply after it leaves the treatment plant, though, monochloramine has the potential as being not as effective as chlorine, since there is little control over the contact time," says Kroll.

Kroll is not recommending that system that have already switched to monochloramine switch back. Instead, he wants water quality professionals to recognize that if they have a monochloramine system, they can no longer rely solely on a sudden drop in disinfectant levels to alert them to a potential contaminant. He also recommends that, where possible, some level of free chlorine should be kept in the system.

And if a municipality has a free chlorine-based system, provides water to a high-profile target such as a military base, and are considering the switch to monochloramine, they may want to consider other methods of controlling disinfection byproducts to help comply with EPA regulations.

"The findings in these studies have significant repercussions as to the safety and security of our nations water supplies," says Kroll.

Jim Sliwa | EurekAlert!
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