According to the study, when chlorine mixes with phenols — which are chemical compounds that occur naturally in the environment and are commonly found in drinking water — a “large number of byproducts” are created.
The problem, Prasse wrote, is that analytical chemistry methods can’t detect all of those byproducts, and some could cause long-term health problems.
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For their study, researchers chlorinated water using the same process employed for commercial drinking water. Next they added an amino acid that is almost identical to lysine, which is found in the human body. After allowing the water to incubate, the researchers used mass spectrometry to see which electrophiles — harmful compounds linked to a variety of diseases — reacted to the amino acid.
They found two compounds: 2-butene-1,4-dial (BDA) and chloro-2-butene-1,4-dial (or BDA with chlorine attached). BDA is a very toxic compound and a known carcinogen that Prasse said had not been detected in chlorinated water before this study.
Although the presence of these byproducts in actual drinking water hasn’t been evaluated, Prasse raises the prospect of using a different methode to disinfect drinking water.
“In other countries, especially in Europe, chlorination is not used as frequently, and the water is still safe from waterborne illnesses. In my opinion, we need to evaluate when chlorination is really necessary for the protection of human health and when alternative approaches might be better,” Prasse wrote.
“Our study also clearly emphasizes the need for the development of new analytical techniques that allow us to evaluate the formation of toxic disinfection by-products when chlorine or other disinfectants are being used. One reason regulators and utilities are not monitoring these compounds is that they don’t have the tools to find them.”
The study was published earlier this month in Environmental Science & Technology.
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