The Dangers of Chloramines in Drinking Water

As far as water disinfection goes, chloramine is the go-to solution. It provides long-lasting protection against waterborne microbes and even has several unique properties that make it superior to popular water disinfectants like chlorine. Perhaps that’s why more and more U.S. cities and municipalities are switching to chloramine after decades of using chlorine to treat and sterilize water. But that doesn’t mean chloramine is without flaw.

Recent studies have shown that chloramine in drinking water can have a string of undesirable side effects on water quality, human health, pipes, and plumbing. Even worse, it can be very tricky to filter out of water. But don’t worry. Today, we’ll be diving deeper into those findings to help you understand the dangers of chloramine and why you should limit your exposure to it. Then, because we want you to enjoy the healthiest drinking water possible, we’ll explore a safe and effective method to remove chloramine from your drinking water.

What is Chloramine?

Chloramine is a chemical disinfectant produced by a reaction between ammonia and free chlorine. The reaction typically produces various inorganic chloramines: trichloramine, dichloramine, monochloramine, and organochloramines. In water treatment, chloramine refers to monochloramine, a five-part chlorine solution, and one part ammonia. It is also typically used as a “secondary disinfectant” to control microbial growth in water.

Why the Switch from Chlorine to Chloramine?

As you probably know, water treatment facilities obtain water from natural surface sources, such as rivers and lakes, and groundwater sources, like underground aquifers, to treat and distribute to the public. However, the water collected from these sources often contains bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and other microbes. In response, municipal water systems must first disinfect the water to protect the public from disease-causing microorganisms and render the water suitable for drinking. This is where chloramine comes in (at least as of recently).

Chlorine was the original chemical used by American municipalities for water disinfection, mainly because of its effectiveness and low cost. When chlorine is added to water, it initiates a process called oxidation. The chlorine forms a weak acid (called hypochlorous acid) that has a neutral electrical charge. This acid then penetrates the cell walls of bacteria and eliminates the bacteria. Even though chlorine is still the primary disinfectant used by most U.S. public water systems, it has two massive downsides:

  1. It is volatile and can escape from tap water as it travels through water mains, eliminating the chlorine residual. Without residual chlorine, water becomes more susceptible to microbial growth.
  2. It can react with naturally occurring organic compounds, creating disinfection byproducts (DBPs) associated with liver and kidney problems, cancer, and even death.

But in a turn of events, chloramine became popular with several municipalities. That’s because it not only kills pathogens and non-disease-causing microorganisms in water but directly addresses the two most common problems with chlorine-based disinfection.

Although a weaker chemical than chlorine, chloramine is less volatile, remaining in the water for longer. This impressive staying power helps prevent microbial contamination on long journeys through miles of pipes and well after it reaches the tap and enters a drinking glass and ensures all areas of the water distribution network are adequately disinfected.

Municipalities also opt for chloramine because it produces substantially fewer DBPs than chlorine. When chlorine is added to a water source with organic matter (like a lake or river), it creates DBPs, including trihalomethane (or THM) and haloacetic acids (HAAs), two volatile undesirable organic compounds with several significant health implications.

Prolonged exposure to THMs is linked to reproductive complications and cancer. Likewise, exposure to levels of HAAs at or above the maximum contaminant level can cause injury to the brain, nerves, liver, kidneys, eyes, and reproductive systems. Animal studies suggest that HAAs increase cancer risk and they are currently classed as possible human carcinogens.

Overall, chloramine in drinking water helps improve public health by lowering the rates of infectious diseases (such as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid) spread through untreated water, even if you live in an outlying district at the end of the water main.

The Dangers of Chloramine in Drinking Water

Despite preventing the public from ingesting bacteria, viruses, and other microbes through drinking water, chloramines are notorious irritants with corrosive properties.

Here are a few prominent disadvantages of using chloramine to disinfect drinking water.

· Irritates the Skin and Eyes

One of the most significant tradeoffs to using chloramine in water is that it can aggravate skin conditions and irritate the eyes and sinuses. Showering or bathing in chloramine-treated water can cause severe rash breakouts in people with sensitive skin. If you have a pre-existing skin condition, like acne or eczema, they can severely exacerbate these problems. Chloramines are known to cause skin outbreaks, dryness, scaliness, and flakiness. Some people exit the shower with stinging, bloodshot eyes, issues with the nasal passage and mucus membranes, and sinus problems. This is because you are inhaling the chloramine in an enclosed space, like a shower stall. For people with chloramine sensitivity, this can trigger extreme discomfort in their sinuses.

· Harsh Taste and Odor

Though not as harsh as chlorine, chloramine carries a chemical aftertaste that can leave the water with an unpleasant metallic or tangy chemical taste. It also imparts a distinct “pool” odor on water.

· May harm kidney dialysis patients

Chloramine may harm kidney dialysis patients by contaminating the dialysis fluid and entering the dialysis patient’s blood. Once in the bloodstream, chloramines can alter hemoglobin, resulting in a potentially life-threatening condition called “hemolytic anemia.”

· Toxic to aquatic animals and plants

If you own an aquarium, be very careful not to replenish the tank with water containing chloramine. See, aquatic creatures, like fish, amphibians, water-based reptiles, and marine invertebrates, have fragile internal organs and structures and are incredibly sensitive to chloramines. Exposure to chloramine through gills or skin into the bloodstream can kill these animals in numbers. It can also be harmful to humans and animals that consume the contaminated fish or other aquatic animals. Hydroponics farmers or hobbyists should also take caution with chloramine in water as exposure to the chemical can alter the plant’s delicate nutrient balance and destroy them.

· Corrodes Metal Pipes, Solders, and Fixtures

A perfect example of chloramine’s indirect impact is when a water system replaces its chlorine-based water treatment system with a chloramine-based system to comply with DBP regulations. When this occurs, the municipality must increase the pipe corrosion inhibitor to prevent chloramine from altering water chemistry and causing lead and copper to leach into the water from old service lines and solders.

Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. didn’t consider this when they switched to a chloramine-based system in the early 2000s. Consequently, the resulting contamination affected water lead levels throughout the city, which led to a five-year lead contamination crisis that exposed more than 42,000 children under two to significant lead levels.

As we mentioned in our article How Lead in Drinking Water Affects Children and Adults, lead exposure in children can cause behavioral changes, such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behavior. Other common symptoms include attention problems, lower I.Q., hearing loss, learning disabilities, and cognitive dysfunction. Lead poisoning may also affect physical growth (decreased bone and muscle growth) and cause anemia, renal impairment, hypertension, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and reproductive organs. In rare cases, ingesting lead can cause seizures, coma, and even death. Some children may experience headaches, loss of appetite, weight loss, extreme tiredness, constipation, nausea and vomiting, and muscle and joint weakness.

Adults are also vulnerable to lead’s health-threatening effects. The signs and symptoms of lead exposure in adults may include abdominal pain, anemia, raised blood pressure, constipation, and mood disorders. It can also cause reduced sperm volume and quality, memory loss and decline in mental functions, difficulty sleeping, pain and numbness, headaches and hallucinations, etc. Some adults may develop low fertility, gout, and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Copper contamination is also typical with chloramine in drinking water. The more copper from pipes, solders, and plumbing fixtures leaches into drinking water, the higher the risk of ingesting lots of it every day. Too much copper in the body can cause vomiting, nausea, dizziness, stomach pain, etc. More severe symptoms include liver toxicity, heart problems, coma, jaundice, and even death.

· Copper Pipe Leakages

Chloramine also doesn’t play well with copper pipes. Chloramine-treated water can alter the water’s chemical properties, which, together with lower pH and alkalinity and nitrification, can result in corroded copper pipes. If left unchecked, copper plumbing in homes can spring pinhole leaks. Often these can be hidden, and the homeowner may be unaware until substantial (and expensive) damage has already occurred. Leaks from the pinholes can cause mold to grow, some of which are highly toxic to humans, often permanently. The pinholes can also introduce dirt, sand, silt, and other sediments into your drinking water.

· Deteriorates Rubber

Not only is chloramine destructive to lead and copper pipes, but it also eats away at rubber plumping parts, like toilet flappers and rubber casings. Signs of corrosion can be seen when black specks appear in the water from plumbing parts. Who knows what problems these bits of rubber may cause if you ingest them and they build up in the body over time?

· Nitrification

In some cases, the ammonia in chloramines is oxidized and converted to nitrates through nitrification. While nitrates do not pose a health concern in low doses, they can deplete chloramine residuals that suppress microbial growth, causing pathogens to pass through the water main and enter your water supply and drinking glass. Bear in mind that ingesting pathogens increases the risk of waterborne illnesses if the chloramine levels are not monitored and adjusted.

Are Chloramines Safe to Drink?

Generally, chloramines aren’t a health hazard. That’s according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who said water that contains chloramines and meets the EPA regulatory standard of up to 4 mg/L is safe for drinking, cooking, bathing, and other household uses. Studies have shown that drinking water with 4 mg/L of chloramines does not cause any illness or long-term health effects. Since public water suppliers are held to strict guidelines for the water they distribute, they are unlikely to be exposed to water with more than 4 mg/L of chloramine. However, hemodialysis patients are an exception as chloramines can enter their bloodstream through the dialysis membrane. Still, considering the health effects chloramine can have on human health, aquatic plants and animals, and pipes and plumbing, you’d want to remove the chemical from your water supply entirely in favor of a less health-impacting and destructive water treatment method.

Does Your Drinking Water Contain Chloramine?

It can be a bit more challenging to tell if you have chloramines in your water than chlorine because chlorine has a more distinct odor and taste. If you’re unsure if there’s chloramine in your drinking water, you can check with your local water provider, either online or by calling your local office. But the best way to find out if your water at home is treated with chloramine is always to have it tested. You can either purchase a water test kit from Springwell or another online merchant or at your local hardware store or contact a certified laboratory for a thorough water test.

How to Remove Chloramines from Your Water Supply

One of the few reliable ways to eliminate chloramines from your drinking water is to use a catalytic carbon home filtration system. Catalytic carbon is activated carbon with a unique carbon surface perfect for successfully reducing chloramines in drinking water. It is most often found in whole-house systems, like the Springwell CF1 Whole-House Water Filter System.

The CF1, in particular, uses premium-grade catalytic coconut shell carbon, certified KDF media, Springwell’s ActivFlo filtration technology, and plenty of other powerful and unique features and functions to target and remove harmful contaminants from water.

Installed at the entry point, the CF1 filters all the water flowing into the home to remove chlorine, chloramines, VOCs, disinfection byproducts (THMs, HAAs, etc.), arsenic, lead, copper, pesticides, PFAS chemicals, and more. Its four-stage proprietary design allows adequate contact time between the filtration media and the water to remove as many contaminants as possible. The system also produces water at a flow rate of 9 GPM (Gallons Per Minute) and is super easy to install and maintain.

With all these features combined, you can enjoy the following benefits:

  • Water that is free from the chemical taste and odor synonymous with chloramine-treated water
  • Cleaner and better-tasting water, food, and beverages
  • You no longer experience stinging, burning, and itching sensations during or after your baths and showers
  • Softer and healthier skin and hair
  • Little to no decrease in water pressure
  • Lower risk of pipes and plumbing corrosion and leakages
  • Safer aquatic pets and plants

Furthermore, all our systems, including the Springwell CF1 Whole-House Water Filter System, come with a six-month money-back guarantee, a lifetime warranty on all parts, free shipping, more than 50% in factory-direct savings, and a quick and easy financing option with no hidden fees.

If you have any questions or concerns about how our whole-house catalytic carbon filter can reduce chloramines in your drinking water, schedule a call with one of our friendly and responsive agents or call us at 800-589-5592. Our team of experts is ready and waiting to provide all the information you need to find the perfect system for your budget and filtration needs.

Final Thoughts

Chloramine is a powerful and effective water disinfection agent with unique properties that can work wonders for your water quality. However, it has several downsides – from skin and eye irritations to metal corrosion – that make it toxic to your pipes, plumbing fixtures, appliances, skin and hair, and overall health and wellbeing. It can also be complicated to remove from water. Luckily, whole-house catalytic carbon filter systems, like the Springwell CF1 Whole-House Filtration System, can significantly reduce chloramines and a slew of other potentially dangerous contaminants in drinking water.