Professor David Reckhow of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department recently told the Wall Street Journal that officials and scientists are reconsidering the use of chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, as a disinfectant in drinking water. “We’re questioning the wisdom of using chloramines as much as we do in this country,” said Reckhow, a national expert on the treatment of drinking water and the head of the UMass Amherst Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS), funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Reckhow is the lead author of a study released in April which concluded that municipal utilities should try to avoid the use of chloramines if they want to minimize the public’s exposure to many of the unregulated disinfection byproducts. The Journal cited Reckhow’s study as a major factor in the controversy over whether chloramines should be used in drinking water treatment in towns such as Hannibal, MO, where a national controversy has flared up over the use of that particular disinfectant.
According the Journal article, “Chloramine has been used to treat drinking water for decades. Its use skyrocketed after the federal Environmental Protection Agency placed stricter limits in 1998 and 2006 on 11 disinfection byproducts. Most, such as chloroform, are created when chlorine interacts with naturally occurring organic material in rivers and other water sources, and some are considered probable human carcinogens.”
The Journal article went on to explain that many experts now say chloramine is creating problems of its own. Researchers have identified hundreds of disinfection byproducts in drinking water, including some that increase in the presence of chloramine and can be more toxic than those regulated by the EPA. As mentioned by the Journal, Reckhow was the lead author of the 240-page study published in April by the Water Research Foundation, a Denver nonprofit organization that gets funding from the utility industry. Based on data from 11 cities, Reckhow’s study concluded that utilities looking to reduce levels of such disinfection byproducts should avoid chloramine, among other options.
At the same time as he made his remarks to the Journal, however, Reckhow said that research into the link between chloramines in drinking water and symptoms such as rashes is inconclusive.
Smaller water-treatment facilities are Reckhow’s bailiwick. In 2014 he and his colleagues received a $4.1-million grant from the EPA to create a national center for research aimed at assisting small-sized drinking water systems. WINSSS was also awarded $1.5 million from Massachusetts to make the state a hub for the emerging water innovation sector.
WINSSS brings together a national team of experts to develop, test, and advance low-cost methods to reduce, control, and eliminate water contaminants that present challenges to communities across the U.S. and worldwide.
“It is so rare to see a prospect like this come through,” Reckhow said about WINSSS in 2014. “Over the years we have had some opportunities that never panned out, but this is exciting because it is really going to happen.”
At the time, Reckhow also explained how the funding would allow him and his team to augment their ongoing research. “The new EPA drinking water center and the state funding are both intended to address critical U.S. and regional needs for clean water,” Reckhow said. “The EPA center will allow researchers at UMass Amherst to test out new and more economical ways of removing contaminants in drinking water, many of which will help to reduce our dependence on using chlorine for disinfection.”
Chloramines are among those chlorine-based disinfectants. The controversy over the use of chloramines for water treatment in Hannibal represents one of the many flashpoints where the ongoing research at WINSS can be considered and applied. (August 2016)