Toxins Found in Chlorinated Water May Cause Cancer

Researchers Identify Previously Unknown Toxic By-products in Disinfected Drinking Water

One of the greatest feats in public health during the past century was the introduction of chlorine use in the disinfection of drinking water. However, in a new study, researchers have found that it could also pose a threat to health by creating toxic by-products.

Chlorinated Water

Chlorinated Water

There is no disputing that chlorination of drinking water has helped to preserve millions of lives. Certain water-borne diseases that used to wreak havoc by killing people in the thousands no longer pose as much of a threat.

In the United States, chlorine is used to disinfect drinking water.

Recently, researchers found that chlorination results in toxic by-products that were previously unknown. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Johns Hopkins University scientists were involved in this research. Also Joining them were researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and Switzerland.

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Toxic by-products

Drinking water often contains phenols, which are potentially toxic and lethal. A mixture of chlorine and phenols results in numerous by-products.  Some of these could be noxious and have long-term detrimental effects on health.

“There’s no doubt that chlorine is beneficial; chlorine has saved millions of lives worldwide from diseases such as typhoid and cholera since its arrival in the early 20th century,” said study lead author Carsten Prasse, an assistant professor of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “But that process of killing potentially fatal bacteria and viruses comes with unintended consequences.”

According to Prasse, it is not possible to identify all these chemical offshoots with existing analytical chemistry techniques.

Identifying Harmful Derivatives

In this study, researchers used the same method commonly applied for disinfecting commercial drinking water. This involves the addition of chlorine in high amounts to properly kill germs and remove unwanted smell and taste.

Thereafter, the team used a popular toxicology method for finding out compounds based on how they react with DNA and other biomolecules. They added the compound N-alpha-acetyl-lysine, an acetyl-derivative of the amino acid lysine, for the unearthing of reactive electrophiles. Electrophiles are toxic compounds that play a role in diverse medical disorders.

Prasse and his colleagues allowed the water to incubate for a day after adding the amino acid. They then went on to identify the presence of electrophiles using mass spectrometry.

The researchers were able to detect 2-butene-1,4-dial (BDA). They also spotted a related compound, chloro-2-butene-1,4-dial, or BDA with a chlorine attachment.

It was the first time scientists would detect BDA, a known cancer-causing agent, in chlorinated water, Prasse said.

Looking at Alternatives

This was only a lab-based study as researchers did not probe regular, commercial drinking water that is available to the public.

However, the findings question the continued use of chlorine in drinking water and raises the question of how much of this chemical is actually essential for disinfection.

“In other countries, especially in Europe, chlorination is not used as frequently, and the water is still safe from waterborne illnesses,” Prasse said.

The study suggests the need to explore other alternatives for making water safe for drinking. These include simple filtration and ozonation.

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